As my esteemed life partner Kat Devlin pointed out to me last night, writing up a batch of movie reviews only a month before my top 10 list comes out might be a bit repetitive. But I've seen four movies lately that have piqued my interest and deserve some attention. Plus, I don't have much else to write about (unless Ruben Amaro trades for Gio Gonzalez later today), so here we go.
Shame - The film I've seen most recently, and the one I was most excited for. I loved Steve McQueen's feature debut Hunger, about the hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands, and I was extremely excited to see what the great Michael Fassbender could do with the role of a New York City sex addict.
Well, Fassbender did not disappoint. By following up his scene-stealing performance in Inglourious Basterds with both X-Men: First Class and now Shame, he's shown an ability to throw himself into any performance, even if it involves wearing a big anti-telepathy helmet. Not only is Fassbender asked to perform a series of degrading, shocking acts in this movie, he's also forced to keep those tensions, that inescapable desire for filth, bubbling just below the surface while his character inhabits the real world. His disconnected demeanor may seem intriguing to some, but to an audience that has just seen him masturbating in the work bathroom, it betrays a twisted individual within who needs help.
But McQueen, in only his second feature film, comes up a little short. I loved how narrow and dark he made New York seem; every storefront Fassbender walks by seems barren; every bright light is either in the distance or obscured by a window. The movie, and the world of the movie itself, is unquestionably Fassbender's alone. But for all of his visual acumen, McQueen sets a very slow pace. Scenes and conversations are drawn out, ostensibly to heighten tension or increase intensity, but they tend to drag on a bit too long in the process.
And most of these lengthy moments are surprisingly limiting, offering little-to-no character development or plot detail. I usually enjoy when a filmmaker offers the viewer an opportunity to fill in a few of the blanks, but you have to present the blanks in the first place. Sometimes this movie felt aloof for the sake of being aloof, as if providing no backstory was a necessary part of making a provocative independent film.
Shame looks great and its lead performance is dynamite, but in the end it was more of a vehicle for those excellent elements than a complete work of art.
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Another movie, like Shame, that could have greatly benefited from a bit more backstory.
Elizabeth Olsen, the youngest (and by far the most talented) of the Olsen children, plays a young girl who's just escaped from a cult (run by the quietly creepy John Hawkes). She moves in with her sister, who's married a well-to-do businessman from the city and vacations in a home not far from the cult's headquarters. And, of course, scary dreams and mental breakdowns ensue.
I don't mean to shortchange the film too much; it's the first feature from director Sean Durkin, and Olsen should get an Oscar nomination for displaying such a healthy mix of both helplessness and combativeness.
But if Durkin had provided a bit more clarity, maybe Olsen's distraught behavior would carry more weight. Instead, in the end, we're left with the memories (or nightmares) of an untrustworthy narrator. While this comes with an implied sense of curiosity and dread, it also leaves the door a bit too wide open for my tastes. Was it all exaggerated, or even imagined? Is she going to live the rest of her life in fear of something that isn't even there? The possibilities offered up are intriguing but not enthralling. I was left wondering what more was there; how much impact a few more defining scenes would have added to the movie.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a damn fine debut for a young filmmaker and actress, but it feels incomplete and lacking the follow-through on what felt like an incoming knockout punch.
The Descendants - And now we get to the crowd-pleaser.
Even though George Clooney's movies don't gross as much as everyone thinks, he's one of our most beloved actors. Which is weird, when you look at his track record. I love Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck as much as anybody, but they're not exactly moneymaking hits. In fact, minus Up in the Air and the Ocean's movies, Clooney's been practically an indie darling for the last decade.
But I'm not arguing with the guy's choices, especially his increasingly obvious desire to snare roles that aren't right in his wheelhouse. After supposedly campaigning hard to play Thomas Haden Church's character in Sideways, Clooney finally gets his leading gig in an Alexander Payne movie. And he knocks it out of the park.
This is frumpy, conflicted Clooney, not dashing spy Clooney. This is the kind of Clooney whose wife cheats on him with Matthew Lillard, as inconceivable as that may be. This is the Clooney who runs around corners at full speed in flip flops, the kind of Clooney who's best buddies with Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel. He's still charming and smooth-talking, but you can see the handful of hardships he's suffered in his face.
What at first confused me and now interests me about this film was its relative lack of narrative structure. Things don't exactly fit together. There are emotional moments and the story flows along, but no one really learns anything. No characters go through big internal changes. They find out a little more about each other, and then they all eat ice cream together.
This threw me for a loop at first, mostly because I was expecting a conventional film with a beginning and an end. But it did feel more real, how a family might actually react to tragedy and controlled chaos. People are who they are, and in The Descendants, said people are a well-to-do "Hawaiian" family with issues like internal communication and not enough attention being paid to certain details. In this neat little slice of their lives captured on screen, they figure it all out well enough to function as a slightly tweaked version of their same selves.
I'm still not sure why this is garnering so much award show praise, but it is probably Payne's least quirky and most accessible film to date. Add in a little Robert Forster and a pinch of Judy Greer and you've got a somewhat perplexingly enjoyable movie.
Take Shelter - The first film I saw starring Michael Shannon was Bug, William Friedkin's adaptation of a play in which two people slowly go insane in a motel room. My brother loved it; I did not, but I was definitely intrigued by Shannon and his increasingly unstable performance. He played an excellent psycho.
And now here we are, after Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire and a handful of other career-propelling roles, and Michael Shannon's finally a "leading man." Perhaps surprisingly, after so many movies where he's unquestionably mad, Take Shelter offers a nuanced take on Shannon's onset of mental illness and how it affects his family and the people around him.
In Shame, Michael Fassbender's character is developed through brief glimpses into his private life, offhand gestures and snippets of information. His dialogue is minimal and his backstory is basically nonexistent. As I said, this can be a fine way to make a movie: allowing an intelligent audience to fill in the holes as they see fit. But it doesn't always hold up when you're also asking us to emotionally invest. It makes it easy to detach.
In contrast, Take Shelter offers numerous scenes with Michael Shannon's wife and child, scenes where you can see how much he cares about them and how his descent into madness is tearing them apart. It makes what's happening onscreen less clinical and more affecting. Conversations with his coworker (Eli from Boardwalk Empire!) and his brother (the reverend from Deadwood!) make Shannon's character more than just another psycho, and they make his illness more than just a plot point that gives Shannon free reign to scream and flip over tables. This is a person with connections, and those might be taken away by forces out of his control. That's some heartbreaking stuff right there.
Maybe the point of Shame was to make Fassbender's character unreachable, to keep his twisted desires away from the audience and induce either pity or disgust. He had no connections, because he couldn't emotionally form them in the first place. No matter the case, I preferred Take Shelter's method. I cared about what I saw on screen, and when the movie ended with a curious final scene, I was compelled to discuss it with my friends and work out its meaning. As either a metaphor or reality, it captured the hell that his family would continue going through.
Take Shelter was an unexpectedly moving look at a simple man combating demons brought about by genetics and bad luck. Shannon's face and features have been long associated with a dignified sort of creepiness, but hopefully this movie will make it clear that his range extends beyond the neatly tortured souls he's specialized in up to this point.