Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"The Reader"

The Reader” is a frequently moving film whose thought-provoking subject is severely damaged by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare’s wrongheaded approach to it. It begins as a coming-of-age romance between a teenage boy and an older woman hiding dark secrets and persists in remaining one to the end, common sense be hanged.

The film’s entire premise – that of a teenager just below most nations’ ages of consent having an affair with a woman whom he later discovers to have been a war criminal – is morally ambiguous and thus requires caution on the filmmakers’ part in order to explore it intelligently. To Daldry and Hare’s credit, the effort is most certainly present, particularly in the penultimate scene in which the grown-up protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) meets a survivor’s daughter (Lena Olin), leading to a conversation in which he both struggles to come to terms with his lover’s crimes while also trying to justify his feelings for her. The superb combination of Fiennes’s half-maintained composure with Lena Olin’s calm but firm indignation make it the film’s best scene, and a glimpse of how excellent the film could have been had Daldry’s sentimentality been balanced by a greater sense of moral perspective.

The part of the film dealing with the affair is filmed with such sensuality – expressed particularly well by Roger Deakins’ admirable-as-always lighting and framing – that one is almost tempted to overlook the fact that what is displayed is essentially statutory rape. A fact that Daldry does not appear entirely unaware of, as evidenced by the way he shoots Hanna (Kate Winslet) closing in on 15 year-old Michael (David Kross) with a towel: First from a semi-subjective low-angle shot that suggests Michael’s point of view from the bathtub, then by placing his camera right next to the towel and following Michael rising from the tub to wrap himself in the towel, as the following shot reveals Hanna naked from behind, holding the towel. This succession of images gives the viewer an impression of a hunter successfully ensnaring her prey. The following close shots of Michael’s nervous reactions to her kissing his back reinforce that idea, even as the rest of the film plays the romance angle quite straight. Wherein lies the major problem in the later revelation of Hanna’s past.

By the time he discovers the truth, Michael is a law student studying German guilt during World War II. He is taken on a trip to a trial of SS guards by his Holocaust-surviving professor (Bruno Ganz, surely a casting decision based on his daring portrayal of Adolf Hitler in “Downfall), who spends the film serving as the voice of German conscience rather than a character in his own right. He discovers Hanna was one of those guards. As the judge repeatedly asks her why she knowingly sent so many Jews to die, she can only reply “Well, what would you have done?” It’s neither a display of defiance nor a rhetorical question. She is honestly confused; the idea of defying orders, of NOT letting Jews die, seems beyond her grasp. This would imply that Hanna may be a sociopath, yet Kate Winslet’s outstanding multilayered performance suggests something more complicated. Her past displays of bottled-up shame and mood swings point towards possible remorse, or at least an emotionally violent reaction to being reminded of the past. Add this to her quasi-childlike incomprehensive attitude at the trial, and Hanna looks less like an evil sociopath and more like someone so morally blinded that she may as well be have been living on another plane of existence altogether, until she was violently brought back to Earth. She is in fact so outside of the common moral sphere that she is more ashamed of her illiteracy – a twist most viewers will have easily guessed by now – than of causing so many innocent people to die.

Michael’s horrified realization that the woman he loved – or at least, in his teenage mind, thought he loved – was not only actively complicit in one of the worst crimes in human history but didn’t have any qualms about it, had the potential for great drama. And at first, it appears to be fulfilling that potential: After some hesitation, Michael decides to deliberately withhold knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy so that she may be condemned to a full life sentence. Years pass, Michael gets married, has a daughter, then divorces, but Hanna remains on his mind. He is still torn between love, disgust and incomprehension. Eventually, he sends her audio tapes of himself reading books he used to read to her, as both a way to communicate his feelings to her and supposedly give her a chance at redemption by teaching herself to read. An act of mutual redemption for the pain each has given to the other.

There lies another problem with the story that isn’t truly addressed until the penultimate scene: Among the 11 million people – Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others – killed during the Holocaust, Hanna has been directly responsible for over 300. And Michael is making this all about him! As if the affront to his feelings was somehow more important than the affront to the victims and their families. The problem isn’t Michael’s self-centeredness, it’s the way the film validates and endorses it by portraying Hanna’s quest to learn how to read and write as some form of redemption, as if being able to read would somehow have made all the difference back then.

Stephen Daldry has always been a somewhat heavy-handed director, but he has distinctly improved since “Billy Elliot”. His shots are more varied and more imaginatively-constructed, and he directs his actors in a way that allows them to interact more naturally within the frame, rather than appear prisoners of the scene’s desired mood as most did in “The Hours”. However, some of his on-the-nose tendencies still persist: The revelation of Hanna’s illiteracy is punctuated by flashbacks to every hint that led to it; Michael’s fateful decision to not visit Hanna in prison loses its efficiency by the show of him turning around and walking back, rather than let his pause and subsequent absence from the line of visitors speak for themselves. While the actors – especially Kate Winslet – perform admirably, the use of German-accented English rather than subtitled German sometimes results in such awkward, unnatural sights as a crowd of spectators shouting “Nazi whore!” at Hanna in German accents, further exposing the film’s artifice.

The Reader” chooses to emphasize romance and sensuality over its examination of guilt, forgiveness and responsibility. In doing so, it not only wastes its opportunity as a character study, it grossly simplifies one of the worst atrocities ever committed by man.

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Billy Elliot"

Where “Silver Linings Playbook” succeeded in addressing its subject thoughtfully and truthfully while faithfully adhering to a conventional Hollywood structure, “Billy Elliot”, despite not being a Hollywood film, occupies an uncomfortable space somewhere between an examination of masculinity in a working-class environment and an inspirational fable about following one’s dreams. These two aspects seldom work together, not because they are intrinsically mutually exclusive, but rather because of screenwriter Lee Hall’s steadfast commitment to the plot at the expense of the themes and ideas he raises, not helped by director Stephen Daldry’s relatively safe approach.

The titular character’s plight – an 11 year-old miner’s son discovering a love for ballet – as well as its setting in the 1984 – 1985 strike, offer tremendous potential for a compelling portrait of a boy caught in a difficult time and place. Alas, it is squandered by its stubborn refusal to go any deeper than easily-identifiable, predictable schemes:  Billy (Jamie Bell) spends his boxing money on dancing, gets caught by his dad. Billy practices in secret with his tough-as-nails teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), misses an important audition due to his striking brother Tony’s arrest, gets exposed again. Cue a Dark Night Of The Soul, followed by an obligatory return to form and 180 from his dad. Suddenly, all pretense of studying masculinity and class is dropped. All that’s left is the big race for the dream. Billy’s success is a foregone conclusion. Hall and Daldry’s attempts at suspense ring hollow because it is unearned.

Thus the story’s political context gets reduced to a couple of plot contrivances – Tony’s arrest that prevents Billy’s audition, and his father’s breaking of the strike to earn more money for another audition in London. Billy’s relationship with his gay effeminate cross-dressing best friend Michael remains safe and devoid of tension or real unease; Billy never once questions his own sexuality, is never conflicted over his friend’s feelings for him despite having been raised in the same hyper-masculine environment that oppresses him. Because he is contradicting traditional gender stereotypes, the movie assumes, he surely has no issue with his best friend contradicting them even further.

This safe approach is mirrored in Stephen Daldry’s competent but fairly pedestrian direction: Musical training montages, shots that only illustrate what the script says without trying to extrapolate any possible hidden feeling… The only sequence where Daldry truly uses the cinematic medium and combines it with dancing as a means to express and understand Billy’s feelings is a truly astonishing sequence in which Billy vents out his anger after a heated row between his father and Mrs. Wilkinson. With a wider variety of camera angles and shot lengths, held together by dynamic editing and the Jam’s Town Called Malice, Daldry takes a break from merely telling the audience what Billy is feeling and instead chooses to actually express it.

The only other notable instance of Daldry going off the beaten track is Tony’s arrest. Set to the tune of the Clash’s London Calling, the scene depicts Tony being pursued through a series of houses by an army of riot police. Things are made even more bizarrely comical by the variety of obstacles Tony runs through and the slight speeding up of the police’s movements, giving the chase a slapstick tone reminiscent of old silent Keystone Kops shorts. This lightly satirical touch is as close as Daldry comes to making his historical setting really matter.

Billy Elliot” could have been a thought-provoking exploration of how gender and class stereotypes conflate and affect the protagonist’s perception of himself and the environment he grows up in. Instead, it ends up being yet another “Rocky”-inspired success story minus the authenticity. For a more successful and similarly crowd-pleasing story of a character transcending gender and class prejudices for self-expression – as well as a greater purpose, audiences should instead turn to Peter Cattaneo’s “The Full Monty”.

"Silver Linings Playbook"

As my previous review of “Manic” posited, mental illness is a subject that has a somewhat complicated history in cinematic depictions, particularly in Hollywood. Most of the time, mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder and paranoia are simplified, reduced to more spectacular symptoms in order to make them easily recognizable. Usually, characters suffering from mental illness will either be villains whose disabilities make them frightening and alien (usually serial killers), quirky oddballs whose disabilities make them endearing and funny or, most loathsomely, Magical Mentally Disabled People whose disabilities can remind “normal” people of the essential things in life and help them become better people.

My point is that very few American films treat mental illness seriously and accurately. And I don’t blame them. I myself suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome along with obsessive anxieties. To properly express what it’s like to live with those things is difficult enough for a sufferer like me, so it’s perfectly understandable that non-sufferers would prefer to simplify things.

The challenge David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” gives itself is to find a balance between accessibility and complexity, to give a more honest depiction of mental illness than your average Hollywood film all while remaining true to traditional romantic dramedy codes and structure. This balance is achieved by a distinct separation of tasks: The settings, plot structure, situations and character arcs provide Hollywood camouflage to enable the acting, dialogue, camera movements and editing to convey the characters’ problems in an accurate manner. The script provides the sugarcoating, the people provide the bittersweet heart.

Upon watching the film again, I was particularly struck by how carefully David O. Russell pays attention to the way his characters interact with each other, and how skillfully his camera captures their shifting moods. Not a single movement is wasted and yet nothing feels premeditated. Whether it’s bipolar protagonist Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) having a manic episode while frantically searching for his wedding video or his date with hypersexual widow Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), which is shot mainly in long-focal close-ups of the speaking party’s face. Not an exceptionally original way to film a conversation, but one that encourages the viewer to pay extra attention to what the characters are expressing beyond their words. Too many dialogue scenes in traditional romantic comedies rely on cheap jokes and emotional shortcuts that, ultimately, only convey that something funny and/or dramatic has happened. This scene is rich not just because we are learning Tiffany’s backstory but because we are seeing two people reacting to each other in a fresh, unaffected and uncalculated way. The scene’s structure and function, while still present, take a backseat in order for the characters to take form and act organically, rather than at the service of the plot.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper truly shine in roles that appear perfectly tailored to their innate likeability, making their outbursts more palatable but without diminishing their impact. They are neither role models nor figures of ridicule or pity, but rather genuine human beings operating within Hollywood parameters. Bradley Cooper in particular is a revelation; you wouldn’t think of casting an actor of such handsome movie-star countenance as a motor-mouthed bipolar man on parole, but Cooper and Russell subvert expectations by barely capitalizing on those looks. Indeed, Cooper’s bright blue eyes, ordinarily so sparkly as to appear unreal, do an incredible job at communicating a man’s desperate fight against both reality and his own delusions.

In the context of David O. Russell’s filmography, it is particularly interesting to see how far he has come in his depiction of the family unit. Initially messed up beyond all repair in his marvelous 1994 pitch-black comedy “Spanking The Monkey” – in which Jeremy Davies’ sexual and familial repression combined with his mother’s emotional abuse culminated in incest – it has since evolved into a more cautiously optimistic form of controlled craziness, from the conflicted-yet-loving “white trash” family from “The Fighter” to the Solitano family, where, to paraphrase “Arsenic And Old Lace”, insanity practically gallops. Jacki Weaver’s Dolores stands as the lone long-suffering voice of sanity – the polar opposite of her poisonous matriarch from “Animal Kingdom” – as she deals with an OCD-suffering, compulsive gambling husband (Robert De Niro, giving his best performance since Kenneth Branagh’s unfairly maligned “Frankenstein”), an overachieving elder son and a bipolar younger son just out of hospital. Through Russell’s comedic lens, the pain brought on by their arguments, fights and suffering is softened but not eliminated. Love and humor do not reduce or destroy that pain, they make it bearable.

Regrettably, this principle gets somewhat betrayed in the third act by an implausibly optimistic epilogue which suggests that everything will be alright for the family and that Pat Jr., Pat Sr. and Tiffany have managed to control their troubles. In real life, people with mental illness don’t get a “happily ever after” . “Getting better” is never a permanent end, it’s a constant struggle to adjust and readjust with every new situation. In spite of this, “Silver Linings Playbook” remains a thinking person’s romantic comedy: It has the same structure as one, but with a half-serious treatment of mental illnesses at its forefront and superior acting.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Shame" (2011)

Is Steve Rodney McQueen’s “Shame” a good film? The answer to that question is more difficult than one might think, as it has a lot of elements in its favour. Chief among these are Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, who both deliver flawlessly heartbreaking performances, the former as self-loathing sex-addicted yuppie Brandon and the latter as his alcoholic self-harming sister Sissy. As he previously did in “Hunger”, McQueen displays an indisputable talent in bringing out the best in his actors, and the film is at its best in those long, uninterrupted and barely-moving shots where he simply lets his actors act and leaves their performances to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, another tendency that occasionally hindered “Hunger” comes back with a vengeance and severely damages this film’s efficiency: Heavy-handed moralizing.

In “Hunger”, it took the form of repeated high-angle shots of remorseful prison guard Raymond Lohan washing his bloody-knuckled hands and a close-up of a snowflake melting on those knuckles. In “Shame”, the moralizing is more prevalent and not restricted to particular shots. It manifests itself more through the way Harry Escott’s overly solemn score underlines every scene of Brandon wandering New York’s unsympathetic streets looking to satisfy a craving he loathes. Over and over, the idea is hammered in with little subtlety: Brandon is ashamed, he feels dirty, he’s self-destructive, he hates sex as much as he needs it, and the audience has to feel his pain and sympathize with him. Not only is such an approach self-defeating, it is completely unnecessary when Michael Fassbender is doing such a superb job of conveying all of this by himself, and is supported so admirably by his partners.

Aside from Carey Mulligan, whose almost unbearable emotional nudity constitutes the film’s very heart as well as its best performance, Nicole Beharie is the most notable of those partners. She plays Marianne, a coworker of Brandon whom he fantasizes about and who successfully talks him into a date. In one of the film’s most successful long takes, Marianne quizzes Brandon about his background and past relationships. Brandon is still shy and protected by emotional barriers but he lets his guard down enough to risk shocking her by admitting that he doesn’t believe in long-term relationships, and that his longest relationship lasted four months. They interact with each other in a way that makes the scene appear largely improvised, with just enough honesty behind Brandon’s fences to suggest that the seeds of a real emotional connection may have been planted. Unfortunately for Marianne, Brandon sabotages these seeds the very next day by sneaking her out of work to have sex in the Standard Hotel only to find that he cannot maintain an erection with a woman he cares about. Unfortunately for the viewer, McQueen sabotages his scene by filming it in a single shot that, while clever in its mirroring of the earlier long shots depicting the couple’s non-sexual interactions, is too distant and obvious for the scene’s tonal shift from awkward tenderness to mortifying self-implosion to really sink in.

Much has been made of the film’s sexual content, even though it is really no more explicit than your average HBO show. The film is no more about sex than Brandon’s addiction is. It is about loneliness and the inability for these two characters to connect to anyone else but each other. A traumatic childhood is hinted at through dialogue – “We’re not bad people” Sissy explains, “we just come from a bad place” – which has led many to speculate they were sexually abused as children and that each one’s self-abuse is a consequence of this. This kind of subtlety is something the film should have displayed more, by allowing the characters to truly get under the audience’s skin and let their actions and words speak for themselves, rather than try and drive the point home with sad music and an abundance of yellow lighting.

So, returning to the question that opened this review, is Steve Rodney McQueen’s “Shame” a good film? The ideal answer would be “yes”. The honest answer is “almost”. It joins the ranks of other noble failures such as “Dancer In The Dark”, “Days Of Heaven” and “Network”. Like them, it had all the ingredients necessary for greatness but was ultimately undone by the excessive abundance of one of them.

"Under The Skin"

Upon hearing the premise for “Under The Skin” – an alien assumes the guise of a sexy human female in order to lure unsuspecting men to their deaths – one would be forgiven for instinctively dismissing it as a probable exploitation of Scarlett Johansson’s body and sex-appeal for the purpose of perpetuating an irrational fear of female sexuality. How interesting and refreshing it is, then, that it should turn out to be about the discovery of otherness rather than a manipulation of the fear of otherness; and that the other, in this case, is us.

The film opens with abstract images of black and white circular shapes and lights, vaguely evocative of UFO lights but presented without any context or clues that would confirm that hypothesis or any other, leaving the viewer to either speculate or simply experience the images for themselves. In that respect, it recalls the early experimental films of the Dada movement such as Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema” or Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy’s “Ballet Mécanique”. More importantly, it serves a double purpose: Prepare the viewer’s mind for the oblique loosely-narrative nature of the film, and sneakily start the process through which they will subconsciously begin to identify with the protagonist’s confrontation with the strange and the new.

Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien protagonist (none of the characters in the film are named, not even in the end credits) is part of a crew that has assumed the guise of humans – in her case, that of a dead prostitute – for a mission whose purpose is unclear but involves Johansson driving a truck and picking up random men under the pretense of asking for directions, seducing them and inviting them into an empty house from which they never come out. With each new victim comes a little more information on what happens to them.

Jonathan Glazer’s direction shifts from dark onirism to aestheticized naturalism in a manner so seamless that it doesn’t immediately register. In most scenes, Scarlett Johansson’s alien is a silent professional at work, scouring Scottish roads with an emotionless face, her eyes intently scouting for potential prey while also taking in her environment.  In those scenes, Glazer films Scarlett Johansson at the wheel of her truck like Alfred Hitchcock filmed Janet Leigh driving her car in “Psycho”, focusing on those eyes with great attention.

Once potential prey is found, she puts on an impeccable English accent and seduces them without making any conscious attempt at doing so. Either unaware or uninterested in human heterosexual mating habits, she simply engages in small-talk with the men, asking them innocuous questions about what they’re doing, where they’re from and where they’re going, and letting her looks do the rest of the job. The men get in, talk a little about themselves and she listens politely, not exhibiting great interest in what they are saying but going along with it. Johansson’s transformation from eagle-eyed predator to charming everywoman and back is, in keeping with Glazer’s direction, so seamless as to be invisible.

It must be noted at this point that all these actors were non-professional local men who, until the film crew revealed itself once their scenes were deemed satisfactory, had no idea they were in a film and that the beautiful woman they were flirting with was Scarlett Johansson. Not only does this give those scenes a natural spontaneity that scripted seduction scenes rarely possess, it furthers the viewer’s process of identification with the alien and reinforces the film’s theme of seeing ourselves through her eyes: This really is us that she and Glazer’s cameras are observing and interacting with; us as we are, without any fakery. Of course, white heterosexual cisgendered working-class Scottish men are hardly perfect representatives of humanity as a whole, but humanity is about more than such categories. We convey a whole lot about ourselves through the smallest, most insignificant of our gestures and words, whether it’s the words and gestures themselves or our delivery of them. And it is partly through these little conversations about nothing that the alien gradually grows more and more curious about this planet and this species she’s been sent to harvest.

The other part of her journey of discovery and self-discovery comes through the observation of everyday life around her, from a man’s failed rescue of his drowning wife and dog to the simple observation of people crossing the street or waiting for the bus. Much like the aforementioned “Psycho” and many of Hitchcock’s films, “Under The Skin” is all about gazing and being gazed at. As the alien uses her male victims’ gaze to lure them to their doom, her own gaze becomes a portal through which we see our world and ourselves: Strange, at times frightening yet consistently beautiful and teeming with life. As her curiosity grows, she begins to experiment more with her body and surroundings. One such experiment consists of tripping in the middle of the street just to feel what it’s like and observe the bystanders’ reactions. In a much later scene, she has a most unexpected reaction to eating a piece of cake. In all those scenes, Johansson’s eyes communicate discreet surprise with just a hint of fear. In a way, one could see her alien as a dark counterpart to her role as Samantha in “Her”, in that they have contrasting reactions to experiencing everything in our world for the first time: Samantha reacts with joy, wonder and excitement; the alien reacts with bemusement, wariness and fear.

This journey of self-discovery reaches a turning point when she picks up a young man suffering from neurofibromatosis who, quite understandably, finds himself intimidated and bewildered at being accosted by a friendly and beautiful woman who seems genuinely curious about his life, doesn’t appear to understand why he has never been with a woman or notice his deformities at all, and even offers to let him touch her hands, face and neck. In a lesser film, such a scene would have likely ended up being a patronizing display of pity. In this film, it is honest, heartfelt and entirely devoid of manipulation. Nothing in the alien’s facial expressions or tone suggests pity. On the contrary, her compliments towards his hands sound sincere and spontaneous. Her accumulation of previous victims and observation of human behaviour give logic to her interest in him and her subsequent actions. For the first time, the alien is truly being herself, going beyond her mission parameters to know and understand her intended victim as a person. What we are seeing is not a beautiful woman taking pity on a physically unattractive man and magnanimously deigning to let him have sensual or sexual contact with him; it is a person, unaffected by learned human prejudices, starting to overcome her own and recognizing humans as equal beings whose lives have value.

The scene’s poignancy owes much to the unaffected chemistry between Johansson and Adam Pearson. Pearson, a non-professional actor and member of the charitable organization Changing Faces, was the only “victim” to be fully aware that he was shooting a film, but you wouldn’t know it from the raw honesty of his performance. He bares his soul – and his body – with a fearlessness that few more experienced professional actors possess. Every slight gesture, every eye movement, every turn of the head, every silence appear reflexive and unplanned. In turn, Johansson’s low-key inquisitiveness and compassion appear as unprompted as Pearson’s. It’s a fascinating duet between an untrained amateur relying purely on his soul and a glamorous Hollywood star striking a subtle balance between in-character calculations and understated authentic feeling.

Under The Skin” feels as alien as its protagonist. Aside from the seduction scenes, there is almost no dialogue. It is a film built on mood and feeling, through perfectly-composed shots, a haunting score by Mica Levi and Scarlett Johansson’s eyes and body language. In some of its best scenes, it is strongly reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s best work – particularly “Walkabout”, without a doubt one of the greatest explorations of otherness ever committed to screen. Glazer’s film does not quite reach its level of profundity, partly due to a disappointing Red Riding Hood-horror resolution that resorts to a facile predator-turned-prey twist and suggests Glazer and his co-screenwriter Walter Campbell had run out of ideas by that point. But the bold and beautiful look it gives us at ourselves, as well as the hypnotic experience it provides us in doing so, makes it a valuable work of art.