Posts Tagged ‘Michael Fassbender’

Forget about Frank Sidebottom: the comic alter-ego of The Freshies frontman Chris Sievey has no place here. Those old enough or with an inquisitive enough mind (and an internet connection) will remember the fairly chaotic comedian who was intentionally bad as a musician and even, some would argue, as a comedian. This would either lead to being charmed or appalled by his “act” but in essence, it was a piece of performance art, akin to the greatest of punk rock musicians.

Jon Ronson is the co-writer of Frank and was a real-life member of Sidebottom’s touring band in the 80’s. He remembered this time fondly in the memoir which inspired this film. And yet it’s probably best to do as little research as possible going in because crucially, the Frank here (portrayed by Michael Fassbender), despite wearing (almost) the same giant paper-mache head with it’s cartoon baby-blue, Betty Boop eyes, is never referred to as “Sidebottom”.

Frank is an odd film not because it’s as particularly psychedelic or kooky as it pertains to be, but because it’s co-writer has written himself all over the film without much thought for anyone else. While this film is supposed to be a celebration of Frank Sidebottom’s anarchic spirit, it in fact, plays out like an apology from a man one suspects still has his reservations about the real-life story (particularly when within subjugation of a film narrative.) This makes the film feel awkward to watch as while Frank is clearly modelled on Sievey, Ronson’s attempt to re-insert him into the disposable 21st century hipsterdom (by turning him into a Captain Beefheart or Daniel Johnston figure) seems very confused.

For it is the subtlety named main character Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who takes up most of our time with the film, and this is the biggest problem. While I appreciate the narrative idea of keeping Frank, a possibly non-existent Michael Fassbender, an enigma, because that is largely what he was, Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare At Goats) can’t seem to make up their own minds about him; this gives the film a mightily unbalanced tone. It’s central relationship is every bit as infuriating as it is supposed to be, except with zero charm, which makes it a tough watch.

Jon is an office drone and aspiring musician, but is dull, hasn’t a creative bone in his body and worst of all, a weird sense of entitlement. Meanwhile Frank and his merry band are the complete antithesis to Jon’s childish and ill-thought aspirations. Consisting of the ridiculous Karen O impersonating Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and an almost entirely absent French rhythm section (Carla Azar & Francois Civil), they make Pink Floyd style prog-rock which is no where near as interesting or as inspiring as the film wants it to be. Later alerting us to this, Jon compares Frank to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett as a similarly deranged yet talented performer however this merely highlight’s the band’s music as derivative.

If it wanted to be, Frank could be an interesting satire of the colliding of the worst indulgences of the British middle-class humdrum and true artistic spirit. However it doesn’t really commit to either. Jon is perhaps one of the most charmless leading characters I’ve witnessed for some time, with Gleeson apparently taking being insufferable literally, using the annoying trope of visualised social-media to communicate his misguidedness. While this is largely the point, we are encouraged to laugh at him; the complete lack of empathy destroys any chance of connection.

On the other side, the band are strangely quite boring. This completely undermines the film’s attempt to show that “making music for music’s sake is perfectly OK” because while they seem perfectly committed to making their (not actually that weird) music, the rest of the time all they seem to do is sit around and look a bit mopey. This suggests that Ronson doesn’t really understand the concept of “artists” and mistakes it for being “a bit wacky” or as is revealed to us, “with emotional and mental problems” because, Frank especially, is so easily talked into wanting to find a larger audience. It seems fairly counter-intuitive to blame a musician’s desire to “just make music” on his anxiety issues, as this isn’t what came across from the act that it’s inspired by.

It’s unfortunate, because there is a good film rattling around inside desperate to get out; much like the person contained in that oversized mask. Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Adam & Paul) makes the best of a confused assignment with some nice stylistic choices; particularly in his Paris, Texas inspired cinematography and editing. At times the script isn’t completely without charm too, as the band manager (played by Scoot McNairy) provides some belly-laughs. However Frank’s bizarre tone leaves it feeling hollow; the broad humour, cartoony, one-dimensional characters, distractingly twee soundtrack and frenetic pace leaves no time to really connect with any of these characters. After a while one starts to build up a bit of a resistance to them. Finally it’s climax negates impact, and it’s shoe-horned emotional close feels cheesy.

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Film Review 12 Years a SlaveSince Steve McQueen first delivered to our screens Hunger (2008) and later Shame (2011) there was a raw, great talent yearning to be established. Utilising his Art School learnings and ambition, and having won the Turner Prize award in 2006, McQueen in his previous two feature films had already established a niche to the burgeoning auteur inside. He was the man most likely to.

So when it was announced he was being given a large, partly Brad Pitt funded, budget to adapt the memoirs of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, expectations were understandably high. McQueen has taken on the political and personal of the human condition, here his aim is to combine the two in to the most prolonged institution of inequality known to man, it’s roots still felt centuries later in the present, and in the directors own words make a film about slavery because it “is a very important subject which hadn’t been given any visual platform when I started to make the film.”

In a year where exploring America’s horrific slave-owning past was wide-spread from the eyes of white diplomats (Spielberg’s Lincoln) or in violent buddy comedies (Tarantino’s Django Unchained) nothing even remotely comes close to how vital this film is. It’s almost difficult to explain, such an unbelievable experience is the film that it’s pretty tough to find the words to do it justice. Never in my life, certainly of Hollywood “blockbusters”, has a film managed to be so striking, so convincing, unsentimental and ultimately, so crucial.

Steve McQueen has created a triumph here; managing to control such a difficult subject and presenting it with stark realism, as well as a frankly incredible cast. Long-term collaborator Michael Fassbender gives his trademark stunning performance from as the abhorrent yet tangibly human, self-loathing slave-driver Edwin Epps. Elsewhere Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and a break-out performance from the fragile heroine Lupita Nyong’o all seem to relish the opportunity to work with such a monumental director and story. Even Brad Pitt manages his annual attempt to derail a great film with his presence, just about getting away with being the only person who doesn’t seem to fit.

Crucially though, this film would be nothing without it’s central lead performance from Chiwetelu Ejiofor as the (sub-)titular Soloman Northup. The film would quite simply fall apart without his incredibly moving role. If we do not believe in the British actor’s immersing into a world a long way prior to African-American’s rights, then the impact would be lost and seem gratuitous. Set 20 years or so before abolition, as a freedman in the North who is educated and a talented artist, Solomon is stripped of his human traits and slowly re-builds his character to remain both defiant and survive. He is dehumanised, made to make unspeakably awful decisions and finally give in when all seems lost, all conveyed from a range of subtle moves from Ejiofor.

This is felt no more resolutely, not just at the moments of extreme violence and suffering inflicted towards Northup, but when, at his lowest, he joins his fellow slaves in a gospel song which rattles around the periphery of much of the film. It may not seem much, but complexities in his deciding to sing because there’s nothing else left to do but to assimilate into his forced community, is such a powerful, bitter-sweet moment that it typifies the unrelentingly cruel struggle we observe. When we do reach the narrative’s climax with Northup, it is an incredibly moving moment, after every inch of trauma over the previous two hours has been felt and culminating in one of the most uplifting and upsetting final scenes recorded to film.

But make no mistake, 12 Years a Slave is an unapologetically brutal film. The film’s trailers intentionally do not pay justice to what a difficult watch this film often is. And yet it is completely essential to the film to feel every injustice served against not just this man, but an entire race in disrepute over where they stand. For instance, Alfre Woodward as the house mistress seems to actively enjoy her role as a sexually exploited African-American, such are the fleshed-out complexities served to every character, regardless how small a role.

Whereas Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was violent to the point of exploitation, here it serves an important message of, to some extent, guilt but also realism. These horrific experiences are lifted almost directly from Soloman Northup’s real autobiography detailing his (and others) harrowing ordeal. Epps’ brutal wife (played exquisitely by Sarah Paulson – who should be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars) is often the purveyor of shocking white supremacist violence, adding yet more layers to this incredibly complex issue and period.

Ultimately, 12 Years a Slave is surely the most deserving film to sweep up at awards season (not that the Academy always work with logic). Nelson Mandela’s biopic’s timing notwithstanding, 12 Years a Slave is an important film that should be viewed by as many people as possible. I fear of talking it up too much, but I feel that the torrent of hugely positive reviews that will surely follow in this country (and already exists in America with a staggering 96% on rotten tomatoes) should make this happen. Such a stunning film McQueen has created here, he and his actors will surely get the recognition they deserve in handling such a delicate story with such integrity.

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Few films evoke such wild anticipation as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Not only does the film see the seventy-four year old director return to the science fiction genre for the first time in thirty years, but it also sees him return to the territory of his seminal 1979 film Alien; perhaps the film that defined him as a director. Not a fan of sci-fi, Scott took on Alien knowing the scope of his vision would make for a truly striking space-set horror, but with the part-prequel, part-spin-off Prometheus Scott has much bigger fish to fry – the very origins of mankind. What he achieves is thrilling, intriguing, but bound to be divisive.

From the outset it was difficult to know precisely what to expect from Prometheus. As the marketing team released more footage and posters, the film’s cryptic evocation of humankind became recognisable, but simultaneously so did its resemblance to Alien. It was as if Prometheus was promising to provide new theories for human existence, as well as the outlandish organisms of Alien (designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who provided murals for Prometheus).

In narrative terms, Prometheus resembles its predecessor surprisingly closely, but its thematic focus is different. Instead of the space age blue collar workers of the previous film, we are introduced to scientists and researchers, eager to discover and communicate with an advanced species well versed in space travel. Aboard their space ship named Prometheus the scientists are lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Their mission is funded by Weyland Industries, represented by the icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron – on frosty form). Conflict arises when the scientists suspect that Weyland Industries have ulterior motives for locating extraterrestrial life.

The film is brilliantly cast, particularly with Michael Fassbender representing android-kind as David, an existentially complex being like those in Scott’s Blade Runner. The problem arises however when we realise that the ensemble are simply not as well drawn as the characters of Alien; this lets slip cliché lines and superficial drama that ticks plot boxes. Fortunately, Scott’s choice cast guide us through the scripting superficialities with aplomb. There too is occasional comedy, courtesy of Prometheus’ captain Janek (Idris Elba) and even Fassbender himself.

The film is at its most intriguing when the crew encounter the Alien-esque world, for which is it most anticipated. Scott utilises the alien species’ ability to conceive, birth and evolve rapidly to amp up the horror, as he did in his previous film – this is a welcome return. While the varying creature design in Prometheus does not live up to Giger’s achievements for Alien, the film still continuously provokes our curiosity, before rewarding us with a violent dose of horror. Despite his interest in the loftier themes of existence, Scott still knows that his job as a director is to shock, move and entertain.

But what of the film’s answers for man kind? And how does this fit with Alien? To say too much would be irresponsible for viewers to-be, but Scott tells a tale that does away with Darwinist theories and revels in a compelling fiction for which you must be willingly suspend your disbelief. He also evokes a new horror that will inflect future viewings of Alien; evidence in the evolution of the Xenomorph (Alien) species itself.

As to be expected with a story that has taken thirty years to follow up, not all audience members will feel satisfied. Some audience members will wish they knew less, others will want to know more (and for those a Prometheus sequel feels due). As for audience members who have not seen any of the Alien films, Prometheus will thankfully not alienate them. For this viewer though, Prometheus is the most compelling Alien instalment since the 1979 original.

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Canadian director David Cronenberg has had something of  a career change in recent years. Once renowned for his body horror features, he took a turn towards more psychologically probing thrillers. Horror fanboys might balk at this transformation, but you could argue that Cronenberg hasn’t really changed his spots. His films are still focused on human dysfunction and the less palatable parts of our nature, but this time it’s under the skin.

A Dangerous Method tells the story of perhaps the ultimate psychoanalytical drama, that of Freud and Jung. Cronenberg details how the young and upcoming Jung (Michael Fassbender) is taken under the wing of the more established Freud  (Viggo Mortensen), an intellectual buddy duo if you will. Their relationship starts to disintegrate when the two disagree about the right treatment of a wayward patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), which is a microcosm for their wider held views.

The film is handsome and fairly engrossing. There are some Edward Hopperesque mise en scenes, and the era is carefully reconstructed. Fassbender and Mortensen are fine in their roles, though neither character stretches two actors who have given a lot more in other roles. Keira Knightley, however, is a unwelcome distraction. Spielrein suffered from bouts of hysteria and unfortunately Knightley fails to convey this in an authentic fashion. Her gargoyle gurning seems to suggest an actor rooting around for the right way to play a difficult role, but I was yearning for an unknown instead, someone not quite as prim as Knightley.

Much of the film relies on extended dialogues between the characters discussing theories and dreams, and there is only perhaps one set piece in the entire film. This leads me to question whether this story lends itself that well to cinema. It is interesting no doubt, Jung and Freud’s relationship and the ideas that they were pioneering, but you get the sense that you would get a richer, more in depth reading from a book on the subject rather than a film. Additionally, the difficult material leads Cronenberg into some stagey drama that occasionally feels like a parody of a serious Hollywood biopic.

It’s still an intriguing, insightful film, but not wholly successful in its execution.

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In light of the British Government’s Film Industry Review and David Cameron’s comments about Britain’s need to compete with Hollywood by producing more mainstream films, it is interesting to consider the theatrical release of Steve McQueen’s Shame, the other key British filmic event of last week. Shame is not by definition a mainstream film, but it is one that has garnered significant interest from both the media and the public in the UK and the USA. The film has become something of a sensation, presumably for two reasons – firstly it’s taboo subject matter of sex addiction and secondly the quality of its execution.

Sex addiction is not a subject that springs to mind when talking about box office success, but Shame had a very successful debut weekend in the states taking $361,181 in just 10 screens. This was the third best limited debut for an NC-17 film ever (following Bad Education and Lust, Caution). This tells us that audiences (specifically American audiences) are happy to pay for British films if they offer something challenging and unique. It’s opening weekend in the UK saw it selling out screens across the capital, with numerous screens in art house cinemas and multiplexes.

Following David Cameron’s statement last Wednesday the Guardian reported how former culture secretary Lord Smith, who is head of a panel evaluating the British film industry, proposed to take a significantly more tactful approach to the industry. With the release of Shame this seems appropriate. The tactic was to market the British film as a brand of quality assurance. Veteran director Stephen Frears reacted to this notion saying: “This country has been making intelligent films, films that are different from American films, for some time… If Lord Smith is now to say we need to keep doing more of the same, rather than trying to recreate Hollywood over here, that sounds eminently sensible.”

Becoming a brand of quality assurance is something that seems natural for British film to achieve at this point in time. With recent films including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kill List, Dreams of a Life, Senna, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The King’s Speech and of course Shame Britain is all set to put a stamp of individuality on the international film scene. It is a question of successfully marketing these projects to an audience outside Britain and developing the stamp of quality for years to come. With the talent currently emerging within the British film industry this seems achievable.

It is greatly encouraging to see the British government taking a serious interest in the film industry as part of the British economy. However, the notion that the British industry should attempt to emulate Hollywood by predicting what will earn the most money seems misguided. While The King’s Speech has been regularly discussed as a shining example of British box office success, it is important to remember that this was not a result of market research, but instead it was an independent film that captured the heart and minds of critics and cinema-goers.

As Shame shows us, British film has the capacity to tackle challenging human subjects with artistic and commercial credibility. Star of the film Michael Fassbender is now a significant Hollywood player, but it is important to remember where he came from. Shame director Steve McQueen’s previous film Hunger also starred Fassbender; this film is where Fassbender really made a name for himself. Britain must continue to provide talent like Fassbender the opportunity to shine in films like Hunger and Shame, because these films can make money and be more than a product of market research at the same time.

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With Hunger, Brit director Steve Mcqueen had the strong foundations of a real life event to draw upon. His reconstruction of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison cell was startlingly realised and uncompromising for a first time filmmaker. In Shame, he and co writer Abi Morgan have conjured an original story between them, and now we see McQueen working on his own initiative. Shame is another visually striking, stark and chilly film, this time centering on the topic of sex addiction.

Refreshingly, this is a film that doesn’t clutter itself with unnecessary sub threads or issues. It is simply trying to reflect the existence of someone suffering from the condition in the most effective way possible. McQueen and Morgan acknowledge this is an important issue and, perhaps, with the domination of the internet, a burgeoning concept.

The main players are Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) two Irish American siblings in New York.  Brandon is a high flying, attractive city worker with a pristeen apartment, while Sissy is a nomadic wild child who drops back into his life unexpectedly. We are quickly informed of their characters; Brandon is a sex addict, a compulsive user of pornography, prostitutes and flings, while Sissy is loose and craves attention. It is clear that something in their background had informed their unfortunate way of living, but we are barely given any hints.

Mulligan is good in her role, but Fassbender is towering. At turns charismatic, pathetic, tortured, and confused, Fassbender is De Niro like in his commitment to the role. You’d have trouble finding a current Hollywood actor willing to put themselves on show as nakedly as Fassbender does here. While his life seems stable and even flourishing, McQueen reveals Brandon as someone unable to practice intimacy, and in his sharp dress and minimalist apartment, someone unwilling to let go. This is perhaps where the film can relate to a wider audience.

Visually McQueen does not quite hit the heights of his previous effort, perhaps reining the stylistic flourishes in to focus more on the characters. Having said that, there is a terrific extended track across the nighttime streets, and like Hunger, the mise en scene is often almost Kubrickian in its sterility. While Shame is a difficult film to love, it transcends its original aim of reflecting sex addiction to create an authentic portrait of two people who are isolated and quietly struggling to function in society.

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