Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shame

What jumps out about Shame is that NC-17 rating.

You don’t get the NC-17 for violence. You only get it for sex.

Extreme sex.

So it was with great eagerness I waited for the movie to begin. I was about to see material that people under seventeen simply could not handle.

As a deeply serious and mature person, I knew I could handle whatever sexual abominations the movie presented, and furthermore I could discern the artistic intent of said abominations, probably coming away with some very trenchant insights into the human condition. Oh yeah, I could handle the NC-17.

But boy was I curious to know what envelope was getting pushed.

I knew the movie dealt with a sex addict played by the arthouse version of Ryan Gosling, 2011’s hottest serious actor, Michael Fassbender.

I also knew the movie co-starred Carey Mulligan, the arthouse version of Emma Stone, as Fassbender’s equally screwed up sister.

Incest was certainly in play. Heck, with sex addiction, almost anything was in play. I was giddy as the curtain raised on the film.

In the first scene we meet Fassbender’s character on a crowded subway train. He spies an attractive woman sitting opposite him. He also spies the equally attractive diamond on her fourth finger. Undaunted, he gives her the smoldering, unwavering stare of the primeval hunter.

The woman tries to ignore him, but he’s so damn handsome, and his gaze is so intense and unapologetic, she gets into a hot little exchange of googly-eyes.

Then the train arrives at her stop. She gets off with a crush of other commuters. Fassbender leaps off the train to follow her, though this is not his stop. He trails her through the crowded station, but quickly loses sight of her. Despite his best tracking efforts… she’s gone.

He gets back onto the train, defeated and unfulfilled.

Welcome to his world.


Shame is a character study, and, happily, the character being studied is a pretty interesting guy. Not because he’s smart, or deep, or talented, or unusual. He’s none of these things. He can’t even keep up a decent conversation on a date.

But he’s an extremely well-drawn specimen of homo urbanicus modernicus. He’s got a good job – the nature of which is wisely left generic – aren’t all jobs generic these days? – he’s got a good apartment and a good wardrobe, and because he’s super-handsome and because he’s a smooth, instinctive sexual shark, he does extremely well with the ladies.

But of course it’s not enough.

It’s not enough because he lives in the modern world, which means his life is a howling void of meaningless ennui.

(I know, life turns into a howling void in almost any era – Thoreau certainly appreciated this fact – but Shame approaches the universal through a very current specificity which, again, is wise.)

Fassbender fills the void with his sex addiction. This means he’s hitting on every attractive woman around him, all the time.

All.

The.

Time.

When he’s not having sex with someone he picked up, he’s having sex with a prostitute. He hires them so often he gets discount cards like at a frozen yogurt shop.

And when he’s not doing that, he’s masturbating to internet porn.

You could say the guy’s got a real problem.

What I like about the movie is that it’s not really about sex addiction. Movies that are about what they’re about are superficial and boring. Instead, Shame is about that ennui, that sense of purposelessness, that afflicts many/most of us. Its real cause is Fassbender’s inability to create emotional relationships. He’s deeply, desperately alone in life, which helps explain that manic drive toward sexual connection. It’s all he has.

Enter his sister.

She comes to live with him, having bailed on the latest of a string of loser boyfriends. Fassbender’s exasperated by her presence, and they end up in a subtle kind of war with each other, but the two are a lot alike. They are both sad, they are both alone, and they are each other’s best hope of having a meaningful relationship in life. Or of learning how to have it with others.

So of course they alienate each other as much as possible.

Shame is a smart and perceptive film, but given its subject matter and reputation, what’s surprising is how conventional it is. Replace sex addiction with Asperger’s or alcoholism and we’ve seen this movie a hundred times. Before the film began I was ready to be scandalized. By the time it ended I had long stopped fearing/hoping for novel forms of perversity. Instead I appreciated Shame for the honest, simple film about human beings that it is. I’m almost tempted to call it sweet.

So where the heck did that NC-17 come from?!

It’s the sheer volume of sex in the movie. Maybe twenty percent of the running time is a sex scene.

Think about that.

Nearly twenty percent of the running time is a sex scene.

Which is unconventional and daring, I suppose, but as every savvy modernist knows, it’s not the quantity of the sex that matters, it’s the quality.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 81/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 84/100

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Boy, is that a good title.

I'm sure it was a fine day for author John LeCarre -- sometime in the early 70's? -- when the title struck him. He was probably thinking of something else, maybe even working on the text of the novel, but in the back of his mind he was reciting the list of characters at the center of this story, the codenames of the four top intelligence chiefs in the British SIS:

Tinker. Tailor. Soldier.

...

Poorman.

That's right, Poorman. The list comes from a children's rhyme I have never heard of, and it runs "Tinker, tailor, soldier, poorman."

And what an awful title that would have made.

But one of those four characters is a spy, whom George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman in the new film version, is tasked with uncovering.

It's the central, relentless question of the movie:

Tinker, tailor, soldier, or poorman?

Which of these is a spy?

So LeCarre was turning the question over in his mind, probably for years: Tinker? Tailor? Soldier? Poorman? He said it over and over to himself. Then, one day (like I said, probably while he was actively thinking about something else), he said, "Tinker, tailor, soldier..."

...

SPY!

It must have hit him like a thunderbolt. What rhythm, what snap, what intrigue and allure. LeCarre had his title.

Almost forty years later we've got the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a smart, thick, atmospheric, authentic slow burn of a movie.

And I do mean slow.

Tinker is a thriller that moves through molasses.


There are lots of silences in the movie. There are lots of characters and lots of subplots. There are flashbacks.

It's a movie that could very easily have lost its way, if it didn't have two things going for it: 1) that central, driving, relentless question: tinker? tailor? soldier? spy? and 2) a really good bad guy.

The bad guy exists entirely off-screen, a la Kaiser Sose (or Sauron the Great!), but he exerts a monumental pull on the story. He is Karla, director of Soviet Intelligence. He is the chessplayer to end all chessplayers, the master manipulator, the unbeatable schemer. We never see his face.

Gary Oldman's weary, wary spyhunter has met the man, only once, many years ago, and he is haunted by the feeling that he revealed too much of himself in that meeting.

It's a dangerous thing to reveal something of yourself in the shadowy world of spycraft -- at least in the fictional version of said world, which is all we're concerned with here.

And that gives a necessary personal edge to the proceedings.

There was a danger that Tinker would come out like a Mission Impossible movie, just infinitely slower and with a less attractive cast -- nullifying the only two positive qualities of a Mission Impossible movie.

But the danger is deftly avoided. Tinker stays true to what it is: a grainy, dimly-lit, whispery journey into a world of complicated politics and even more complicated machinations. A world where personal relationships always get sacrificed at the altar of the espionage business. That's a sad thing, and everyone involved registers the sadness.

It may not be great, and it's certainly not exciting. But Tinker shows what you can achieve off the strength of a great title and a powerful central question.

Tinker?

Tailor?

Soldier?

Spy?








--spoiler alert--











Tailor!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 69/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Artist


This movie is an old-fashioned people pleaser.

It’s so old-fashioned that it’s in black and white, and silent.

You wouldn’t think a movie could get away with being a silent film these days, but, delightfully, The Artist gets away clean.

Fittingly, the protagonist is a silent film star. His name is George Valentin, and in the year 1927 his celebrity is at its peak – as is his personal wealth. He’s a little pompous and a little vain, but we like him because he’s got a winning smile, he’s always nice to his co-workers, down to the least of the P.A.’s – secretly a huge ingredient in likability; if you want us to bond with a character, just show us he’s on first-name terms with the janitor and the job is done – and also he has the approval of his perky co-star Uggy, a Jack Russell Terrier who netted himself the Palm Dog at Cannes this year.

(I’m not joking! You can look it up.)

Valentin’s star is so bright that he launches the career of a fresh-faced starlet without even trying. That starlet is Peppy Miller, a gutsy groupie who kisses Valentin on the cheek during a photo shoot, which garners her fifteen minutes of fame. She wisely parlays that into a small role on Valentin’s next film.

While on set, Valentin and Peppy fall for each other. What’s wonderful, though, is that nothing happens between them – there’s a big age difference and, oh yeah, Valentin is married. Instead, the relationship develops purely through subtext, showing that good writing is good writing whether or not there’s actual dialogue in a film.


Valentin and Peppy go their separate ways. Then the stock market crashes, and their ways diverge even further. Valentin loses everything he had. Making matters worse, “talkies” have just come onto the scene, and suddenly Valentin is out of a job. His pantomimed acting style no longer plays with audiences in the age of sound.

Conversely, Peppy’s career takes off. She’s the new It girl in the world of talkies.

Peppy’s fortunes just go up, up, up, while Valentin’s go equally far down. So much so that the second half of the movie loses much of the pleasant charm of the first. We’re subjected to a few too many Valentin-down-and-out scenes.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, and overall The Artist is a good time at the movies, especially since it’s the only silent film you’re going to see this year.

There’s a lot of talk this movie might take home Best Picture, but I don’t think it’s substantive enough to really contend – at least in a perfect world. An indication of the movie’s shortcomings lies in the title, and its failure to resonate. The title doesn’t really mean anything in the context of the story. Valentin doesn’t consider himself an artist, nor does anyone else. And if a movie’s title has little meaning, odds are the movie itself isn’t exactly bursting with significance.

But hey, it’s still got the neat gimmick of no dialogue, it’s still got some winsome characters, and above all, it’s got Uggy, the prize-winning Jack Russell Terrier.

I'm pulling for him to win Best Supporting Actor this year. The speech would be awesome.

SCORE

How Accomplished:  76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100

Friday, December 2, 2011

My Week with Marilyn


Ah, Oscar season!

It’s nice to see award contenders finally appearing in theaters. Surely in the running for Best Picture will be My Week with Marilyn, based on Colin Clark’s 1996 memoir of his time spent on the set of a forgettable romantic comedy in 1957, starring the unforgettable Marilyn Monroe and a British actor named Laurence Olivier.

Monroe was, um, trouble on the set.

She was always late, she never knew her lines, and she was terminally insecure around the accomplished cast of British actors. Oh, and she popped a lot of pills.

But man was she gorgeous.

So gorgeous that everyone on set was effectively in love with her. And yet, it was 23 year-old Colin Clark that got to be her special companion, at least for one memorable week, during filming.

This came about because Marilyn’s erratic behavior gradually alienated everyone else, including Olivier – played terrifically by one-time “the next Olivier” Kenneth Branagh. As a consequence, the set grew increasingly antagonistic toward Marilyn, which made her insecurities skyrocket and her diva-ish behavior even worse.

Enter starstruck, lovelorn, third assistant director Colin. So unstinting and unconditional was his affection for Monroe that he became her buffer against the judgmentalism of the others. She took him everywhere, including visits to Buckingham Palace, jaunts to the country – which included skinnydipping! – and even snuggle sessions in bed.

The story is presented as if they didn’t actually have sex, but Monroe certainly used her sexuality to bind Colin to her completely. Colin is sweet and simple, and on the surface, Marilyn seems the same. But though Olivier’s warning to Colin, that Marilyn is savvier than she appears, is lost on Colin, it is not lost on us.

Marilyn DID know what she was doing.


The week ends as we knew it must, with Marilyn saying goodbye – though if the movie is true to life, her farewell to Colin was both classy and considerate – and Colin returning to his life of obscurity. Also a life without Emma Watson, a fellow production employee whom Colin was courting before the Marilyn Monroe train chugged into station.

All in all, Colin seems mostly enchanted by his week with Marilyn, and in the end he seems to regret nothing, not even Emma Watson.

The whole thing reminds me of my favorite movie from 2009, An Education, with the gender roles reversed. These are classic sadder-but-wiser stories, and maybe the reason I like An Education more is that the protagonist of that film was made significantly sadder by the end of her affair, and so, became commensurately wiser.

Unlike Carey Mulligan, Colin just wishes his week with Marilyn could go on forever. He doesn’t really learn anything about Marilyn, or himself.

And so we’ve got a good film, not a great one. We do, however, have a great performance from Michelle Williams. Her Monroe is utterly beguiling, and I don’t see any way on this Earth she doesn’t win the Best Actress statuette for her efforts.

Not to say she deserves it – who deserves any of these ridiculous awards? – but she’s impersonating a famous figure in a period drama, everyone in town knows her and likes her, she’s never won an award, and she’s got the tragic background thing in spades.

So put all your money on Williams to win, and My Week with Marilyn to place.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 83/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 81/100