Monthly Archives: May 2012

Shame (2011)

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Behari

Expressionism & Realism

I don’t really know where to start with this film since it is so beautifully layered. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Mr. McQueen’s second feature. The level of accomplishment and the confidence that exudes from each frame is astonishing. Perhaps it’s what Orson Welles attributed to the artistic cinematic success of his first two features: the brash ignorance of film technique married to the proficiency and success in another visual art medium (theatre for Welles, photography for McQueen).  The resulting Shame is the type of film and the kind of film-making you wish was more popular or acceptable but, at the same time, understand why it is not. With it, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser degree, Carey Mulligan have crafted an exquisite piece of film art that blends realism and expressionist subjectivity (like Mr. Welles particularly did in his first film, Citizen Kane)  to powerful, resonant effect.

On the surface, the subject of this film is Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sex addiction, but this seems more of a categorizing and way of promoting the film. Sure, Brandon has a sex compulsion to the point of it controlling the way he lives his life. The sex is not wanton or erotic. Like all addictions it leads Brandon to loneliness and isolation. His apartment is stark, his nakedness spartan and fitting in to the minimalist aesthetic; his job is nondescript and his habits are those requiring solitude (Internet pornography and masturbation).

The loneliness is drawn out by the expressionist qualities of the film. The opening scenes in Brandon’s apartment are especially expressionist with frigid and sterile blues and greys. The opening shots of Brandon lying on his bed make his face skeletal and his form dismembered in the way the sheets cover his body. Brandon’s clothing is plain and muted (pale glen plaid coat, pale grey scarf, pale blue shirts). His state of mind is as washed away and as dead as the environment he lives in. It’s not until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in that colour disrupts his world. Upon coming home to discover Sissy in his apartment, Brandon picks up her purple-pink boa with the end of a bat rather than with his hands. Red is the colour that becomes most explicitly linked to Sissy (her Annie Hall-esque hat and her lipstick as she croons “Ney York, New York” ).

The suggestion of the colour is not as a contrast to Brandon’s sterility in terms of vibrancy, but instead it suggests danger and sex. Sissy is, of course, a danger to herself as well as to Brandon’s mode of living. Toward the end of the film she attempts suicide and stains Brandon’s environment and his self with blood. Just prior to this Brandon’s compulsion for sexual anonymity has taken him into a gay sex club which is awash with expressionist red. Brandon’s sexual desire and frustration is at its highest, most dangerous point. It could be that red, already associated with Sissy, is being used again to connect Brandon’s compulsion to his desire for and sexual frustration toward his sister. Mr. McQueen’s targeted use of expressionism in lighting and colour draw attention to Brandon’s character and his motivations.

The realism of the film is brought to the fore in Mr. McQueen’s favoured  use of  a single-camera set-up (static, pans, and tracking shots) and long takes. In Hunger (2008), this technique was used most notably in the scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham) — one take, one camera, no camera moves. Shame doesn’t use it to such an extreme, but when it is used (such as Brandon’s morning routine or his stalking through his own apartment while Sissy is with his boss in the bedroom or the attempted sexual encounter between Brandon and Marianne) it leaves the audience as transfixed as the camera is on what is happening. I can easily see many viewers being uncomfortable with something so stationary (which is partly the point). There’s no illusion of action, there’s only the person or people in the frame and their sense of confinement and, of course, the power of Mr. Fassbender’s fierce performance. Holding to a single camera and a single take allows Mr. McQueen to take full advantage of his lead actor’s ability to weep out, to sweat out, to excrete the essence of his character through his body, his mouth, and his eyes. How Mr. Fassbender was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) for an oscar nomination is ridiculous.

Shame is a virtuoso example of cinema. It is crafted with confidence and complexity (I haven’t even gotten into the film’s main themes) and uses the full repertoire of cinematic syntax: camera work, montage, light & colour, performance, and sound & music (which I also haven’t dealt with). As long as Steve McQueen continues directing films (and especially if he continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender) then the type of film that should be more popular and should be seen by adult/grown-up/intellectually mature audiences will continue to be made. It’s the type of film and film-making that demands our support.

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The Avengers (2012)

Director: Joss Whedon

Writers: Zak Penn (story) and Joss Whedon (story & screenplay)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddlestone, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson

Franchise & Film-maker

The Avengers is a triumph! It’s about as much shallow-minded mental fun as is possible to achieve at the movies. This is not to say that you have to turn off your brain to enjoy it; you don’t. In fact, if the human brain is all about sensory input and engagement, then this movie requires your brain to be switched on and, if so, it then rewards you with the pleasurable release of natural joy inducing chemicals into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, you smile, you puzzle, you smile, you laugh, you say, “Wow!” The Avengers is a far better movie than Iron Man (2008) and even better than Spider-man 2 (2004), which I had considered to be the best Marvel adaptation.

In Joss Whedon, Marvel found the perfect film-maker to  handle what was increasingly looking like a burdensome ambition and a movie-going chore; a trip to the theatre done out of obligation rather than desire. Somehow, with Iron Man 2 (2010)Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the set up was becoming boring and in no way did it seem as if the end product was going to justify the efforts and dollars expended. Then, something amazing seems to have happened: the project was handed over to Mr. Whedon and they trusted him and they let his traits come to bear and the fruit on display in this movie is sweet and juicy.

Now, I haven’t been a fan of everything Mr. Whedon has been involved with. I did go through a pretty heavy Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) phase in the late ’90s, but I never got into Angel (1999-2004) or Dollhouse (2009-2010). On the other hand, Firefly (2002) was clearly terrific, but I went into that well after its cancellation and after being underwhelmed by its movie follow-up Serenity (2005). Of course, after binging on Firefly I went back to Serenity and found it to be really pretty great. All of these previous projects now seem to have been perfect preparation for The Avengers. All of them have traits that are present in Mr. Whedon’s film (only his second feature film): revolving and involving a large cast of principal characters, stories progressing along multiple threads, a script teeming with cleverness and zingy lines, actors having fun with their characters and with each other, action sequences that are well-paced and make sense (no Transformers style aesthetic and logical vomit here), and a villain in Loki who is just slightly conflicted, but as charming as he is evil.

I think the film’s success is not entirely due to the efforts and input of Mr. Whedon (and here I’m assuming that it’s North American release will be as tremendous as it’s international — myself, I saw the film last week here in South Korea in a packed theatre). A large part of what makes this film work, i.e. what enables it to be understandable, is the immense marketing effort that Marvel/Disney has put behind it. It really has been, I believe, unprecedented and tremendously ambitious. From the post-credit tag scene at the end of Iron Man to the Tony Stark cameo in The Incredible Hulk (2008) to the all out blitz over the past two years from Iron Man 2 through Thor and Captain America. It’s been risky because those movies, to varying degrees, suffered from the weight of laying the groundwork for The Avengers. In fact, it could possibly be argued that Marvel first planned this assault way back in 2002 when Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch re-imagined the Nick Fury character in the image of Samuel L. Jackson for The Ultimates comic book (this being The Avengers equivalent in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. I am hoping more of the style of this comic universe will be on display in the new The Amazing Spider-Man movie later this summer becuase Ultimate Spider-Man is one of my favorite comcis ever). So, if any true comic book aficionado can enlighten me on Marvel’s possible prescience or grand plan,  please chime in. My point is that Marvel has put in a lot of effort to make sure awareness for The Avengers project was extremely high and it looks as if they were willing to take some losses and bad reviews along the way. While since Iron Man in 2008, box office and reviews for these movies have been moving lower and lower, the awareness of the characters and The Avengers as a group has been increasing. Marvel knows that not everyone has seen all of these movies, but what everyone has seen over the past 18 months is a trailer or TV spot or an interview or guest appearance or tweet from one of the principal cast members. The tiresomeness of the releases of Thor and Captain America in particular last summer stemmed in part from the knowledge that the audience was purchasing a ticket to watch an advertisement for the main product: The Avengers. But, even this is not the end product. What Marvel/Disney has set up is far more enduring; they have designed a self-perpetuating content property. This is not just a tent pole franchise; it’s an entire camping park. Whereas Harry Potter and Twilight have had to resort the heavy-handed tactic of splitting the last novel to lengthen their film series (it seems inevitable that The Hunger Games will resort to this also), Marvel and its Hollywood studio partners have been able to draw on the culture and history of comic book narrative and publishing. No other form of popular literature is as malleable and re-visionable as the comic book, yet readers still accept the convoluted mythologies and the shifting appearances and histories of the characters. Marvel has applied those qualities to both its marketing and the production of The Avengers and hired, in Mr. Whedon, the person to translate that into something that makes sense.

The Avengers is not a perfect movie even if you put away all the cynical corporatization of the narrative and the idea that the whole thing or more about marketing than story or entertainment (content = property = profit). The film is probably too long, the SHIELD secret agenda subplot is too easily dismissed, and Agent Hill is a non-starter. But still, it’s amazingly fun and most amazing of all is that the studio overlords let their storytellers tell the story. I have to tip my hat, because I am now re-excited about marvel’s upcoming projects. My favourite thing about The Avengers was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk. I’ve been in awe of him ever since You Can Count On Me (2000), and the prospect of a Hulk movie that actually works because of its lead actor has me smashing things in childish excitement. Also, Iron Man 3 has a great chance of being pretty fantastic; it’s being written and directed by Shane Black. Mr. Black wrote the second best action movie of the ’80s* Lethal Weapon (1987) and is the guy who saved Robert Downey Jr.’s career with the wonderful but woefully under-seen postmodern L.A. neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). If Mr. Black is afforded the same trust and he delivers like Mr, Whedon has delivered, then the way way for Marvel properties will be a pleasure to watch.

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* The best action movie of the ’80s (and of all time) is Die Hard (1988).


Haywire (2012)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Lem Dobbs

Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton

Gina & Genre

Haywire is a one-woman show… literally. There are only two other women with lines of dialogue in the movie, and one of those women is a shop clerk who only says, “42.50”, the price of a disposable mobile phone. This is not to say that Haywire is a male-centric film; it certainly is not that. The collection of male talent arrayed against Gina Carano’s Mallory Kane are in orbit around her either as satellites or as kamikaze asteroids doomed to fall and fail by the force of her gravity and then be systematically crushed by its power. Physically Ms. Carano is sublime — as a non-professional actor she isn’t asked to do too much verbally, but she portrays Mallory as a coldly efficient warrior warmed just enough with (for her) an uncomfortable sexual allure and a comfortable (again, for her) smoldering sense of vengeance. Her physicality is wisely placed at the centre by director Steven Soderbergh, and it is exploited for its power. As a male viewer it’s difficult not to be awed by her presence, but there is never a hint of seduction in Mallory Kane. Still, her allure is palpable.

The exploitation of the physical is, of course, nothing new in the action genre, but unlike the early movies of similar male crossover athletes/actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme come immediately to mind), Ms. Carano is not treated as a piece of muscly meat. Mr. Soderbergh does take advantage of her curves, but not in the way you’d expect.The idea of eye-candy is explicitly brought out in one scene in Lem Dobbs’s (The Limey — 1999) script when Mallory bristles against playing that role for an assignment in Dublin; however, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Dobbs constantly seek to subvert the idea. Michael Fassbender offers the only vaguely erotic nudity in the film when he appears shirtless and sinewy with a towel wrapped around his waist after a shower. The point of the scene is not seduction or arousal… unless it is of the arousal of each characters’ professional curiosity; it is tension, subterfuge, and vulnerability. It is a kind of antithetical callback to an earlier scene in which Mallory is also shown right after a shower… wearing a house robe and which a towel frumpishly wrapped about her head. The expectation of Mallory’s sensuality in this scene is a subversion because the scene follows her “seduction” of Channing Tatum’s character in Barcelona. Mr. Tatum himself is often characterized by reviewers and audiences as beefcake eye-candy, but he also remains covered throughout and his sex scene with Ms. Carano is cut with her unbuckling of his belt. I look forward to more play on the idea of eye-candy in Mr. Soderbergh’s later 2012 film, Magic Mike, which also stars Mr. Tatum (this time as a male stripper).

I do think that how we look at women and men and our expectations of them is an aside for Mr. Soderbergh in this film. I think his real purpose with Haywire is something more obviously movie-is. He has, of course, crafted an action genre movie, and by doing so, is commenting on that genre.

There is nothing extraordinary about the plot of Haywire. It is every bit as implausible as any other action movie. It is not high-concept like Die Hard (1988) or the Mission: Impossible movies (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011), but neither is it low-brow like Commando (1985), Bloodsport (1988), or The Expendables (2010). The plot of this film is decidedly low-concept (double-cross + revenge), but with no smart-ass one-liners or obligatory tits-shot. The narrative is not told in a strictly linear manner, its first half is a sequence of flashbacks as Mallory relates events to Scott, her helpless tag-along witness, but it is straightforward and there are no twists. Similarly, there are no attempted undercurrents of political commentary as there are in the paranoia filled world of Jason Bourne or (lesser to Bourne) the dark action films of Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott: Black Rain (1989), G.I. Jane (1997), Body of Lies (2008), Man on Fire (2004), and Domino (2005).

In fact, I couldn’t help thinking about the Bourne films as I watched Haywire. Both share a lot of action (fights, car chases, foot chases, gunplay), but otherwise they are dissimilar, particularly in the way they are shot. The Bourne series has become known (and notorious for some) for its use of handheld camerawork and rapid editing. In those three films things are shaky because Bourne’s world and state of mind are shaky. The action and the violence spill out of the frame and into the audience’s world; perception is disrupted and comfort along with it; the technique is effective psychologically as well as in terms of narrative and character. Mr. Soderbergh’s film, however, is smooth and calculated. His always excellent camera-moves glide with the motion of the characters — the camera is controlled because the film’s central character is self-controlled. In a foot chase sequence in Barcelona, the camera tracks backward as Mallory Kane runs forward and after her quarry; the camera will never escape her and neither will the man she is chasing. She is kept centre-frame and this serves to highlight her directness. It is a simple and effective use of camera and action informing the audience of character. In close combat scenes, the staging works in a similar way. Walls form the sides of the frame and Mallory propels herself off these edges; she is kept inside the frame where her opponents have no escape from her. For a modern (post-modern?) action movie, the filmmaking is unusual in its avoidance of quick cuts, bombastic music, and disorientating staging. Instead, takes are relatively long for action sequences, fast, smooth pans are employed, music is dropped out, and the action usually unfolds in long or medium shot. Again, it’s all very simple, straightforward, effective, and entertaining.

There is nothing new in Haywire, but between Gina Carano’s forceful presence and the direct centricity of her character, there’s more than enough to satisfy both fans of action movies and fans of Mr. Soderbergh (like me). And, as a final thought, it’s too bad that undamaged women do not drive more films, action or other genres, forward.

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