SHAME

2011 was a hell of a year for Michael Fassbender, a year in which he effortlessly hopped genres and worked with some of the best directors around, building one of the most impressive filmographies of any young actor at this time. Yet the one performance that will be remembered over all others comes from the most low-key film, Steve McQueen’s SHAME. As grim and uncomfortable as the film gets, it is simply impossible to turn away from Fassbender’s devastating performance as sex addict Brandon, and his omission from the Academy Award nominations, although perhaps not surprising given Hollywood’s trepidation regarding anything overly sexual, is far and away the greatest crime this awards season.

Following up on his previous film HUNGER (also starring Fassbender), writer/director McQueen delivers an even more harrowing and haunting film with his sophomore effort. SHAME is a portrait of the vicious routine of addiction, and Fassbender strips himself completely bare, both literally and emotionally, following the arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Although only briefly alluded to, clearly Brandon and Sissy come from a nightmarish background of abuse, and each sibling has developed crippling emotional problems as a result. Where Brandon is totally emotionally isolated, unable to connect on anything other than a purely physical level, Sissy craves closeness and love from her brother which he cannot give. Their relationship is unsurprisingly strained; with only the briefest moments of tenderness amongst their uneasy and oddly child-like interactions, and the tragedy of their shared experience has left them each dealing with their demons in completely different ways, leading to heart-breaking conflict. Sissy’s appearance shatters Brandon’s routine, forcing him to see the train-wreck that his life has become, and Fassbender gives everything in service of the role.

As excellent as Fassbender and Mulligan are, they are more than complemented by McQueen’s beautiful directing style. Coming from a visual arts background, naturally his compositions are flawless, and much like HUNGER, SHAME’s minimalist dialogue often comes in the form of long takes, adding a sense of unsettling realism which is occasionally difficult to endure. In very Kubrick-ian style, the director’s attention to detail in his locations also adds so much to the tone of the story. Brandon’s sparsely furnished and decorated apartment works as a perfect counterpart to his character, revealing nothing on the surface yet filled with hidden clues about his addiction, and as such becomes an extension of his personality, making Sissy’s presence all the more unwelcome. McQueen’s choices of where to focus his camera are fascinating and, coupled with the suggestive imagery and euphemistic dialogue, subtly convey so much of what he wants to say, resulting in one of the most remarkable films of the year. Those expecting a concrete resolution will perhaps walk away disappointed, but for audiences with a high threshold for unpleasantness, SHAME is an absolute must-see.

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MONEYBALL

American underdog sports movies are far from a new concept, but rarely does one come together as well as Bennett Miller’s MONEYBALL. It’s something of a hard sell, given that the film more concerned with statistics and percentages than the game of baseball itself, yet writers Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin craft a surprisingly compelling story, and Miller’s understated, almost old-fashioned direction allows the beauty of the story to play out naturally, despite a slightly overlong runtime.

As previously mentioned, MONEYBALL is more of a business film than a sports film, telling the story of the under-funded Oakland Athletics’ 2002 Major League season, a season where general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and freshly graduated economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) shook the game’s backroom strategy to the foundations. Brand’s radical approach (selecting a team based on statistics rather than individual performance) isn’t exactly the most cinematic of concepts, yet Zaillian’s excellent story construction coupled with the wonderful dialogue from Sorkin simplifies what could be a densely intimidating and complex subject, with breezy, relatable, and very entertaining results. Much like Sorkin’s Oscar-winning THE SOCIAL NETWORK screenplay, MONEYBALL uses the real-life events as a frame to hang much grander ideas on, and even for viewers unfamiliar or uninterested in the sport, there is much here to enjoy.

No discussion of MONEYBALL would be complete without special attention being paid to the fabulous double act of Pitt and Hill, both arguably delivering the finest performances of their careers. The two play so well off of one another, with Pitt in particular revealing a little seen everyman quality which fits his character, and the film, perfectly. Beane lives everyday with the spectre of past failure hovering around him, yet his ambition is never shaken, even in the face of tremendous adversity. It’s a remarkably mature performance from Pitt capping off a very strong year (inculding similarly solid work in THE TREE OF LIFE), suggesting that he has finally shaken totally free of his pretty boy ‘star’ image to become a vastly talented actor, the Robert Redford heir apparent which many have been foreseeing for years. Hill also surprises in an against-type role, but is unquestionably second fiddle to Pitt.

There is strong competition from several films in this year’s Oscar race, yet MONEYBALL more than deserves to stand alongside the best of them. Subtle, heartfelt and inspiring with perfectly pitched performances, Miller, Zaillian, Sorkin and Pitt knock it out of the park. 

 

DVD Review: ABDUCTION

John Singleton’s ABDUCTION is the type of movie not seen as often nowadays as in the past: the action star vehicle. These films, which seemed to come in an endless supply during the 1980s action star heyday, usually exist for no other reason than to promote their leading man (or occasionally woman) and their often dubious talents. Here, Taylor Lautner steps out of his supporting role in the TWILIGHT franchise and into his first starring role as Nathan, the high schooler on the run from a past he knows nothing about. As is typical of the star vehicle, Lautner’s shortcomings as an actor, not to mention those of dreadful love interest Lily Collins, are minimised by surrounding him with strong supporting players such as Sigourney Weaver, Alfred Molina, and, clearly having a blast as Nathan’s ‘parents’, Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs. The trick works for the most part, with Weaver being the only disappointing exception, as she delivers her lines in such an unconvincing manner, and is clearly only in it for the paycheck.

As colossally stupid as the film is, ABDUCTION moves along at a brisk pace and never feels particularly boring. There’s a certain masochistic pleasure in watching Lautner do his best to display any kind of emotion other than broody squinting, and while at times he honestly looks like he has no idea what he is doing, Singleton gives him several opportunities to take his shirt off and show the only real reason that he’s a star. Which brings me to maybe the most underwhelming aspect of this entire mess, Singleton himself. How did this filmmaker, the youngest ever to be nominated for a directing Oscar (for BOYZ IN THE HOOD), end up making this kind of throwaway teen trash? With the exception of 2001’s excellent but underseen BABY BOY, Singleton seems to have moved further and further away from the initial promise he displayed, and ABDUCTION is without question his lowest point yet. In the right crowd, it is probably a fun film with plenty to poke fun at but, much like its star, is ultimately a vapid and moronic product wrapped in a pretty package.

DVD Review: APOLLO 18

Many films have tried to emulate the success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, some more successfully than others, but few have failed on the same level as APOLLO 18. Transplanting the horror from the woods of Maryland to the moon of all places seems like an interesting idea on paper, but the film is so desperate to maintain its level of documentary realism that it sacrifices all fundamentals of horror filmmaking, and instead teases audiences with a payoff that never really comes, aside from a few ineffective, hackneyed jump scares. 

Whether by design (BLAIR WITCH) or as a result of technical limitations (JAWS), often the unseen terror in movies is the most frightening, yet APOLLO 18’s creators take the ‘less is more’ concept entirely too far, leaving a film where the threat is so elusive that it becomes almost non-existent, and anytime anything interesting is allowed onscreen the found footage aesthetic is shoved down our throat with such force that one can’t help but disengage completely. Possibly budget constraints played a part, but obscuring the scares with egregious shaky-cam and digital over-exposure of the footage achieves nothing except undoubtedly frustrating viewers. Add in the laughably clichéd dialogue delivered by woefully amateur performers, and APOLLO 18 is disappointing on more or less every level. BLAIR WITCH’s lightning in a bottle success has been in some way replicated by films willing to adapt the formula, such as CLOVERFIELD and the recent CHRONICLE, not by merely taking the same tone and narrative beats to a new location, even one as full of potential as the lunar surface.

CHRONICLE

Ever since the breakout success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the found footage film has become a subgenre in its own right. In a similar vein to Blair Witch, the Paranormal Activity series has found great financial success with their comparatively meagre budgets, and Cloverfield in 2008 proved that, even on a larger scale, the handycam aesthetic can deliver effective thrills when employed by filmmakers who have a solid understanding of the style. Josh Trank’s Chronicle represents an evolution of the found footage genre, taking the character as cameraman conceit to interesting new places, and marking the director as a young talent worth monitoring.

Chronicle differs from predecessors like Cloverfield in the sense that this handycam footage isn’t presented as ‘found’ per se, but rather is a stylistic and narrative choice which puts a refreshingly original spin on a well overdone story: the superhero origin. After encountering a strange, glowing object in a deep underground cave, high schoolers Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover they have telekinetic powers which allow them to move objects with their mind. Matt considers the powers to be like a muscle, which can be strengthened through training, and after beginning small eventually the trio build superhuman strength and, to their delight, the ability to fly. The special effects betray a small budget at times, but the initial flying sequences are breathlessly entertaining, and the pure joy of the characters makes them more effective than most mega-budget blockbusters. These are meant to be regular kids, and although the story loses focus as the scale grows towards the climax, the early scenes are surprisingly genuine and affecting. But make no mistake, this is an origin story (one which doesn’t necessarily beg for a sequel however), and Trank and his co-writer Max Landis (son of John Landis) use the visceral, in-your-face nature of the found footage to breathe life into a genre which has come dangerously close to wearing out its welcome in the past decade.

As is the case with almost all science-fiction, a lot more can be read into Chronicle than what is happening on the surface. Aside from the excitement of fighting and flying about, there is a very real human story at work, with a lot of teenage life’s triumphs and tragedies. Trank and Landis clearly poured their own experiences into the film, with the three leads seeming like people from everyone’s high school years. Added to this is a nice element of self-reflexivity as Andrew, an unpopular misfit, uses his camera to define himself, and how he sees the world. The old adage about writing what you know seems to ring true in the case of Chronicle, and seeing Andrew learn to move his camera in more dynamic ways thanks to his new found powers is perhaps the tiniest hint of autobiography from Trank. The film is filled with subtle aspects such as this which will probably be missed by most, but thankfully simply taking Chronicle at face value is a rewarding experience, proving that the superhero origin story is not dead, it just needs a good shake up from time to time.