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Shame, Extremely Close etc., Contraband, The Artist 

SHAME

***

Michael Fassbender went all James Brown on us in 2011, as the hardest working man in show business -- or at least in film -- appeared in leading roles in no less than four motion pictures. Fassbender was compelling as Rochester in Jane Eyre, as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method and especially as Magneto in X-Men: First Class, but it was his role in Shame that allowed him to most fully expose himself, in more ways than one.

Shame, the first collaboration between Fassbender and director Steve McQueen since 2008's Hunger, focuses on the travails of a sex addict, a story that could only be adequately told in a film carrying the dreaded NC-17 rating. Certainly, this isn't one for the kiddies, and, I'd venture to say, it's not for most adults, either.

Fassbender stars as Brandon, a New Yorker who's obsessed with sex. "You masturbate more than anybody on the planet," Chris Rock's Rufus tells Jason Mewes' Jay (of Jay and Silent Bob fame) in Kevin Smith's Dogma, but this film lays waste to that statement: Brandon jerks off in front of his computer, in his bathroom at home, in the bathroom stall at work, and seemingly anywhere short of a church pew.

Yet his horndog activity isn't always a solo one: He's charming enough to pick up women at bars and, failing that, he can always rely on his stable of hookers. It's not surprising, then, that he finds it a nuisance when his emotionally fragile sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly appears on his doorstep, looking for a place to crash. And when a co-worker (the bright Nicole Beharie) shows interest in a real relationship, he's forced to reevaluate his lifestyle.

McQueen's direction is occasionally languid to a fault, and his script (co-written by Abi Morgan) manages to be both admirable and irritating in its pronounced vagueness ("We're not bad people," Sissy states at one point. "We just come from a bad place."). Yet while the movie might sport problems on the conceptual level, the haunting, tortured performance by Fassbender is an absolute knockout -- to miss it would be a real, uh, shame.

EXTREMELY CLOSE & INCREDIBLY LOUD

**

The 9/11 melodrama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has been dubbed Extremely Long & Incredibly Dull by industry wags, but in all fairness, it doesn't especially feel overextended (even though it runs 130 minutes) and it manages to retain some measure of interest throughout. No, its problems register more deeply than that. Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, it seeks to be the definitive film centering on that tragic day but instead feels hopelessly contrived and shamelessly manipulative -- a punch to the stomach rather than a balm to the heart.

The central character is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a young boy whose behavior suggests that he has Asperger's syndrome. Inquisitive yet socially awkward, Oskar shares a special bond with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), with his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) clearly placing second in the parental sweepstakes.

Thomas is in one of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and it's only some time later, when Oskar discovers a key that apparently belonged to his dad, that the healing process can truly begin. Armed with precious few clues, the lad scours the Big Apple looking for the lock that matches the key, aided in his efforts by a silent neighbor (Max von Sydow) who communicates only through note cards.

Marked by improbable characterizations (Bullock and von Sydow are the main victims), constantly tripping over its many gimmicks (a tambourine, a telephone answering machine, those note cards), and doggedly determined to wring tears from every foot of celluloid, EL&IC is a classic case of trying too hard, less interested in examining the legacy of 9/11 than covering every pandering base in an effort to earn those desirable year-end honors (there's a reason producer Scott Rudin famously held this from view as long as possible, hoping that it would appear at the last moment to nab that Best Picture Oscar).

Admittedly, there are individual scenes that register strongly, and the performances by Horn, von Sydow and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright (as a divorcing couple) occasionally draw us into the drama. But for all the chatter about EL&IC serving as a catharsis, that's not only wrong but also simplistic in the face of such a game-changer of an event. Besides, 9/11 has already been tackled with more candor and less sensationalism in such works as The Guys, 25th Hour and, of course, United 93. Those fine efforts soberly noted the horrors and paid tribute to the heroics of that fateful day; by comparison, this new picture mainly pays tribute to its ability to pat itself on the back.

CONTRABAND

*1/2

A remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller, Contraband is yet another in a long line of ignoble duds tossed out to help open a new movie year while the previous year's films are still busy collecting all the accolades. As far as January releases go, it's far from the worst -- 18 years later, I still have nightmares surrounding the Chris Elliott comedy Cabin Boy -- but it's nevertheless poor enough to securely earn its opening-month berth.

Its foreign antecedent bore the moniker Reykjavik-Rotterdam, but perhaps mindful of the fact that many Americans would mistake these two major European cities for brands of beer, the action has been switched to New Orleans-Panama. But perhaps mindful of the fact that many Americans would mistake a movie called New Orleans-Panama for a travelogue, the title ended up being Contraband, which is so generic that it only reveals that the characters must be up to something naughty.

The narrative wrongdoing begins with young punk Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), who foolishly agrees to transport drugs for the hair-trigger Tim Briggs (perpetually annoying Giovani Ribisi, whose entire career seems like one long epileptic seizure) and then finds himself in hot water when he's forced to dump the entire load. Luckily for Andy, his sister Kate (a miscast Kate Beckinsale) happens to be married to Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), who used to be The Greatest Smuggler Of All Time. Now making an honest living, Chris reluctantly returns to the criminal fold, relying on the help of his best buds Sebastian (Ben Foster) and Danny (Lukas Haas) as he travels from New Orleans to Panama and back again as part of a plan to save his brother-in-law.

Director Baltasar Kormakur actually played the Mark Wahlberg role in the Icelandic version, but whatever special insight he must have felt he could bring to this project was apparently lost in translation. There's nothing in Contraband that rises above the flagrantly mediocre, from its doorknob-dull characters to its rote storytelling. Even the casting exudes laziness: Seasoned filmgoers need only glance at the cast list to figure out which of Chris' allies will end up double-crossing him. Still, the script's betrayals pale next to the one perpetrated by filmmakers eager to dupe audiences into thinking they're paying for quality entertainment.

THE ARTIST

***1/2

The definitive look at the transition from silent films to talkies arrived courtesy of the 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain. The story about a talented nobody becoming an overnight success while an established performer simultaneously suffers a career crash'n'burn has been filmed ad nauseam, most recognizably in the various screen incarnations of A Star Is Born.

And, unless one counts Charlie Chaplin's gibberish song in 1936's Modern Times, the employment of sound in an otherwise silent picture found its high-water mark in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, in which the only word heard throughout the course of the film ("Non!") is uttered by legendary mime Marcel Marceau.

In short, The Artist isn't exactly the most original movie to make its way into modern-day theaters, despite its angle of being a black-and-white silent picture. But so what? Although it sometimes runs short on invention, it makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious.

Jean Dujardin, best known on these shores (if at all) for the pair of OSS 117 spy spoofs he made with director Michael Hazanavicius in their French homeland, plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship.

The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures -- a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood.

In crafting his homage to the silent era, Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time -- think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out. Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama.

As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions, whether it's the luminescent paint jobs in Cars 2 or that vibrant rainbow connection in The Muppets.

 

 

 

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