Category Archives: 2011 Releases

A Dangerous Method (2011)

A Dangerous Method (2011)

Dir: David Cronenberg, Ger/Can, 99 mins

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortenson, Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassel

David Cronenberg and the body horror sub genre have become as symbiotic as the fusion between man and virus that so regularly populate his films. Early output such as parasitic horror Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) were no holds barred but with a satirical streak reminiscent of George Romero’s zombie films. Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986) followed the drastic physical and psychological disintegration of the individual, characters whose fates are mapped through dabbling with untold technological and genetic forces.

Psychological duality has also been a Cronenberg mainstay, best illustrated in Dead Ringers (1988) and the underrated Spider (2002). It is a theme he has returned to in recent mainstream additions A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). Viggo Mortenson stars in both as men who take on another persona for different purposes. Period drama A Dangerous Method may seem a strange fit for Cronenberg but with this idea in mind it becomes obvious where the attraction lies.

Based on Christopher Hampton’s stage play The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method recounts the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and their opposing theories in the field of psychiatry. Jung takes on Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) as a patient and then mistress, relations becoming increasingly fractured once she begins to conduct her own research influenced by both men in equal measure.

Placing A Dangerous Method as period drama may well do it a disservice. For me personally this genre conjures up the dirge of Merchant Ivory, films swamped with so much delicate social etiquette that the characters spend an age walking around on egg shells before matters are finally resolved. Although the backbone of the film is formed by the dynamic between Jung and Spielrein there is more vitality here due to the mental sparring played out between the two and the eventual usurpation of teacher by pupil.  Despite this the film only truly comes to life in the scenes between Freud and Jung, mentor and heir apparent. At first they’re expansive debates spur each other on but as opinions are galvanised horns are locked. With contrasting takes on the unconscious and the stern, pragmatic Freud’s dismissal of Jung’s justification of religion and myths as “magic” a rift grows between the two. Unfortunately there are not enough of these verbal jousts and Mortenson’s Freud is relegated to what amounts to an extended cameo.

Surprisingly Knightley outshines Fassbender and Mortenson. Initially her performance jars. When Spielrein is taken in by Jung she is catatonic and Knightley overplays every manner and tic with a ridiculous jutting jaw line. The characters transformation after this is engrossing as Spielrein gradually switches from mouse to cat over the course of the affair. She becomes a young woman who knows her own mind and influences both men’s perspectives as much as they inspire her. Fassbender is more restrained as Jung, a closeted man dedicated to his study, passionate in its defence but one who interestingly only arrives at self-contemplation once all is lost.

A Dangerous Method is handsomely shot and well acted but by emphasising the romantic arc to drive the film it partially sacrifices the debate between Jung and Freud, the main fascination. As expected from a director of Cronenberg’s stature this is always watchable, just on this occasion unremarkable considering the historical scope.

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Young Adult (2011)

Young-Adult 3

Young Adult (2011)

Dir: Jason Reitman USA, 94mins

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser

On first impulse Jason Reitman’s second feature with Diablo Cody as screenwriter, the first being breakout Juno (2007), sounds like it will venture down a well-worn route that many formulaic romantic comedies have travelled before. Thankfully this is far from the case. Young Adult features Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), mid thirties, divorced but a successful ghost writer of a teen literature series. After another drunken one night stand Mavis receives an e-mail from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), her ex high school sweetheart, announcing that he has become a father. Somehow buoyed by this information Mavis decides to leave Minneapolis and go back home to her hometown of Mercury, her sole intention to win Buddy back at all costs.

Reitman, son of Ghostbusters (1984) director Ivan, first announced himself with satire Thank You for Smoking (2005) where Aaron Eckhart plays a slick pro tobacco lobbyist (think echoes of corporate bully Chad from In the Company of Men (1997) but with some shred of ethics).  Juno (2007) followed with a smart turn by Ellen Page as a teenager confronting an unexpected pregnancy and then Up in the Air (2009) where George Clooney plays a lonely corporate downsizer and collector of air miles, Reitman’s most mainstream effort thus far.

Young Adult takes a different tack, trading satire or smarts for acidity and a social ineptitude toe curling in its embarrassment to the viewer. As a collaboration with Cody this is superior to Juno,which although amusing and thoughtful with its predicament traded too much on its indie, hipster styling’s. This is closer in tone to the films of Alexander Payne, particularly About Schmidt (2002) which tends to get forgotten amongst Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). In his latter films Payne mines comedic value from his characters but also the pathos of their existence.

Mavis is one of those characters. She has never completely let go of her halcyon high school days when she was prom queen and held in adulation. Her book series is due to be cancelled as sales have plummeted and as each morning comes around we see her slumped on her bed still dressed from the night before nursing a hangover. Her mission represents a chance to obtain what she believes is rightfully hers. Despite the best efforts of guardian angel Matt (Patton Oswalt), bullied at high school and previously ignored by Mavis, who tries to convince her that this is never going to work she piles on headfirst, a little black number as her armour.

It is difficult to side with this character but Reitman and Theron excel at pealing back the layers to reveal someone who is damaged and lost. A short scene where Mavis visits her parents and goes to her bedroom, a high school time capsule, subtlety gets to the heart of the issue. When Mavis does finally blow, at the christening of Buddy’s child, it is entirely expected, cringe inducing but also painful to see her go through the process of airing her psychological baggage in public. It’s a brave performance from Theron that balances arrogance and tart one liners with an underlying lack of self-worth, unlike anything she has done before. Young Adult was largely ignored when released, probably due to its scabrous nature. It is by turns hilarious and surprisingly poignant in places although it is doubtful that this leopard will ever changes its spots. Highly recommended.

Carnage (2011)

Carnage (2011)

Dir: Roman Polanski, Fr/Ger/Spa/Pol, 80mins

Cast: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christolph Waltz,Kate Winslet

Roman Polanski’s adaptation of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage revolves on the slimmest of premises. Set in New York, the opening credits scene depicts a group of boys in a park where a dispute unravels and one hits the other with a stick. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) agree to meet at the Brooklyn apartment of Michael and Penelope Longsteet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), both parties determined to arrive at an amicable solution for the incident between their offspring. Nancy’s early rationalisation that “So many parents just take their kids side, acting like children themselves” proves horribly prophetic as conversation expands beyond the topic in question and battle lines are drawn.

Polanski is best known for dark, labyrinthine dramas. In his most recognised work, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), the lead characters become entangled in plots riddled with ambiguous characters pulling the strings in the background for their own agendas. It is only in the final scene of each, when all is lost, that both lead and viewer fully realise the ramifications of what has been sown. However, a comedic streak has surfaced in the Polanski oeuvre on occasion. Offbeat thriller Cul De Sac (1965) displays a healthy dose of surrealist humour and gem oddity The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is an affectionate homage to Hammer horror films with additional moments of slapstick.

Carnage falls into the bracket of social satire. The core of the film presents two contrasting middle class ideologies and teases out the hypocrisies inherent in each. The Longstreet’s are on a modest income (door to door sales man and shop assistant) with a leftie leaning and strong belief in family values. The Cowan’s are high flyers (attorney and investment broker) focused solely on their careers, the addition of a child to their lives seeming like an accident neither wished had happened. Polanski judges neither and as the situation is played out the two couples verbally hang themselves. Once a bottle of whiskey is introduced we truly see the void beneath the facade.

Naturally for a film set in such a microcosm performances are key. Waltz and Foster come out best here, probably because they are the two antagonists. Waltz’s Alan is glued to his phone which creates social awkwardness for all. Through snippets of conversation we learn that he is attempting to hatch a plan of defence for a dodgy pharmaceutical company (we later learn that Michael’s mother is on said medication) and this becomes a mini plot in itself. Waltz plays Alan with an air of utter disinterest, a man who has been dragged along under duress and who only perks up when he can acerbically nail Penelope’s argument to the wall.

Foster’s Penelope is a more complex case. She has artistic ambitions that have never really been fulfilled and subsequently has created a quasi-bohemian existence to compensate. She uses her stance as a veil to take the moral high ground only for it to backfire and expose frailty’s that exist in her marriage. This is a delicate tightrope to walk but one Foster navigates superbly. Out of all the characters her’s is the one that goes through the most turmoil, her calm reasoning moving through to anger and finally self loathing.

As Michael it is satisfying to see Reilly cast off the shackles of dominated husband at the halfway point, a role he seems to have made his stock trade in films such as The Good Girl (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Initially he acts as peacemaker but snaps eventually, a square peg forced into a round hole who has been living a lie. In a film which pushes the envelope with histrionics Winslet’s feel the most forced and she has less to work with, although one scene involving the messy desecration of some Francis Bacon coffee table books is something to behold.

Carnage does amount to very little. Anyone who watches this thinking it will be an epic philosophical battle arriving at some grand statement will be gravely disappointed. This is more akin to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977) whereby it teases out a critique through characterisation. Maybe Carnage is not as cutting or astute as it  thinks it is, more light and frothy, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome and is highly amusing.

Archipelago (2010)

Archipelago (2010) ½

Dir: Joanna Hogg, UK, 114 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Kate Fahy, Lydia Leonard, Amy Lloyd, Christopher Bake

Archipelago is set on the beautiful, windswept isle of Tresco, part of the Isles of Scilly. Patricia (Kate Fahy) invites children Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and Edward (Tom Hiddleston) to the family holiday home. This is arranged as a farewell for Edward who is about to depart to Africa, embarking on charity work for a year. Patricia hires artist Christopher (real life landscape artist Christopher Lloyd) to teach her water colours and chef Rose (Amy Lloyd) to cook for the family. Patricia’s husband Will is due to join the family later on in the week.

To label Joanne Hogg’s third feature a family drama in the formulaic sense is to do it a great disservice. Hogg has no interest in conventions; her characters do not undergo life changing lessons that make them “better” people with remarkable last minute epiphanies. Instead what we have is a brutal dissection of middle class mores, the dysfunction beneath a visage that has to be maintained. In this sense it takes the stiff upper lip image used so often on screen to depict this class but instead probes deeper to unveil darker home truths, middle class social realism if you wish.

This is a proper director’s film and could rightly be accused of being impenetrable with its glacial style. The camera remains static and at a distance as scenes play out. It is only as long simmering tensions become inflamed that shots are framed closer to the protagonists. There is no heavy exposition, we learn about these people through the standard conversation they share, a tic or seemingly minor comment reverberating deeply. A dinner table scene where Cynthia belittles Edward’s decision to go to Africa is a prime example, illustrating his need to buck conformity and the loyalty Cynthia feels he owes his father who arranged a stable job for him. Although Will is never seen on screen his influence looms large over the entire family. It feels as if his force of personality and expectation has shaped their lives, right or wrong.

There are times where the viewer can feel clammy and overly voyeuristic at what they are witnessing. Nevertheless, it holds a strange hypnotic quality and invites us into a world not usually depicted with such raw honesty. Out of a nuanced, naturalistic cast special praise should go to Hiddleston as Edward, unsure if he is making the right turning at his crossroads, and Fahy who you suspect holds a deep reserve of melancholic regret towards her marriage. Archipelago is a film that will not suit everyone’s tastes. However, the meticulous execution cannot be doubted and to generate so much with such restraint and understatement is a rare achievement and to be applauded.

Take Shelter (2011)

Take Shelter (2011) ½

Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Katy Mixon, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker

Jeff Nichol’s follow up effort to Shotgun Stories (2007) takes place in Elyria, Ohio with everyman character Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) as it’s focal point. Working on a building site to sustain his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), Curtis’s life begins to disintegrate as he starts to have premonitions of harm to his family and a coming storm. Obsessively he sets about building a storm shelter in his back garden. Has Curtis succumbed to the schizophrenia that afflicted his mother or is he preparing for what he feels to be the inevitable?

It would be tempting to place Take Shelter into the category of Apocalypse film. This genre has provided filmmakers with grand spectacle over the years, think Planet of the Apes (1968) and Mad Max (1979), chaotic, barren wastelands where survival is the only goal. My personal favourite would be A Boy and his Dog (1974) where Don Johnson’s Vic shares a telepathic connection with Blood, a mongrel more eloquent than his owner. A spate of these films, perhaps best typified by Armageddon (1998) and The Day after Tomorrow (2004), appeared in the late 90’s and early 00’s, a mainstream response to millennial and global warming concerns.

Take Shelter is quite the opposite, effectively a study of one man’s mental disintegration. Like Ron Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Curtis has little reason behind his compulsion, albeit with a more dangerous edge due to the acknowledged family medical history. The premonitions when they come jolt the audience away from this idyllic unit set in a sleepy, rural community. The audience fears not only for Curtis but also those around him yet still with an empathy for what he is going through. This is in no small part down to Shannon who is onscreen for the entirety of the running time and magnificent in realising an unravelling psyche. This is an understated performance, a slow, subtle crack that draws the audience in. Like  Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) we are disorientated and unsure until the final reel where we stand with the lead, a difficult trick to pull off.

Note must also go to Chastain who adds more meat to a role that would usually be dismissed as that of the “concerned wife”. Her bewilderment in understanding her husband’s situation articulates that of the audiences. The interplay with her and Shannon in scenes such as when they go to a sign language class for their daughter is playful and makes the decline all the more painful to witness. I must also add any CGI is understated and used sparingly to delicately enhance, not to swamp proceedings as is so regularly the case nowadays. It is perhaps this that sums up Take Shelter best, a film that puts character ahead of spectacle and is all the better for it.