A Dangerous Method, dir. David Cronenberg
It’s been fashionable recently to say David Cronenberg’s a misogynist, at least in the film-criticism organs I regularly interact with (that’d be LA Weekly, LA Weekly, and the noted LA Weekly), especially in the run-up to his new movie A Dangerous Method. And yeah: the film does prominently feature a jealous wife who saps her brilliant husband’s vitality, women who have no ideas of their own until they develop out of studying male-proposed theories, and a plot that revolves around a hysterically insane beauty’s slow return to relative sanity once she realizes that all she wants is to get her ass spanked, belted, or otherwise tore the fuck up by a suitably awesome dude. And yet somehow the movie feels like a rebuke to the easy characterization of Cronenberg as woman-hater: for two hours we watch Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud blustering around in stuffed shirts on Joseph Campbell-style heroic quests for knowledge the women they regularly mistreat have had all along. What makes the film more complex than any mid-20th century piece of whimsy about that ole feminine intuition is that understanding things about who we are as people doesn’t look nearly as good on camera as topping a corseted and bound Kiera Knightley does.
Even in this relatively sedate, cerebral period piece Cronenberg’s way with the indelible image remains. Without special effects or even particularly crazy camera work, the onus is on the actors to communicate the director’s signature sense of a world stretched through some alien filter or other, and the result is the strongest performances ever to grace a Cronenberg film. Fassbender is wonderfully frustrating to watch, forever on the verge of an epiphany he never reaches -- in the S&M scenes that everyone in the audience knows should provide him with transcendence especially, the man visibly recedes, leaving only a creepily mustachioed robot swinging his arm wildly back and forth. Mortensen is sufficiently enigmatic, never giving any hint as to his inner workings: the perfect father figure, simultaneously benevolent and unknowable. And a bearded Vincent Cassel as coked out renegade psychiatrist Otto Gross is pretty high up there as personifications of amoral hedonism go. (The film misses the golden opportunity of showing us Cassel and Mortensen banging rails on an all night bender together, but that’s one of only a few strikes against it.)
The film, however, belongs to Knightley, who announces her arrival in the top ranks of working actresses with a performance that would be the only logical choice for the Oscar if not for its incandescent daring, which far outstrips that of the timid Academy voting bloc. As the mental patient-turned-psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein, she singlehandedly brings body horror to what’s essentially a period romance. A spitting, teeth-baring, writhing, masturbating vortex of mental illness in the film’s first third, she commands every bit of the viewer’s attention for every second she’s on screen, even when covered by blankets or subsumed in water. This is full-body acting for the ages, the former Disney pirate-princess’s willowy frame turned to an assemblage of bones that wrack and distort and melt back into captivating, piteous docility within a single breath. But Knightley really shows her chops once she’s cured: the whirlwind inside her does not disappear but is constantly kept at bay, an affliction tortuously written over by visible force of will, only allowed to resurface in the scenes of sadomasochism, whose questionable equation of female sexuality with mental illness is only visible in retrospect. In the moment, all we see is a woman caught somewhere between sanity and insanity, one who seems close to shedding her own skin or suffusing into radiant light. The best fight scenes of the year aren’t in any of the summer blockbusters or even the Korean imports: they’re here, inside Knightley’s body, unspoken but no less luminous for that.
So overwhelming is this show of talent that when the film strays away from Knightley toward the end it takes a minute or two to catch up: oh sure, we remember, Cronenberg might be trying to say something that isn’t contained in one individual’s performance. As such, the film’s real message hits exactly at the right moment. Leave it to a Canadian filmmaker making a movie set over a century ago to create the defining statement about a Europe that’s currently tearing itself to shreds: Spielrein’s theory that true purity can only come from a clash between dark and light that subsumes the individual identities of both is positioned as prophecy, building the violent, remedial sex between the Aryan Jung and the Jewish Spielrein into a metaphor for World War II, the looming memory of which softened borders and brought about a Europe that has managed to unite in name, at least. (Of course, a line of reasoning that views the Holocaust as a continent’s necessary therapeutic evil has its own problems, but look what the anti-Semite tag did for Lars Von Trier!) The film ends with a premonition of apocalypse -- Jung on the eve of the first world war, torn apart by dreams of approaching cataclysm, and a credits-sequence cue card informing viewers that Sabina Spielrein met her eventual end at the hands of an SS death squad.
It’s about as dire as sun-dappled endings shot along the banks of the Rhine get, but not for nothing: today’s united Europe inches a little closer to death with every passing morning, and it’s pretty terrifying to imagine what we’re in for once that particular cataclysm goes down. Good metaphorical films are a dime a dozen, and so are good movies about the past, but sometimes it takes a misogynist Nazi to put together something so cutting you fear for your own future.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The One That's In English, 2011
A way better movie than the story deserves, and a way better product display than H&M could have possibly paid for. There's no use arguing about this fucking thing anymore, so let's just list what we know: it's a shitty mystery, Lisbeth Salander has less human traits than a box full of ketchup, and Steig Larrsson's wish fulfilment sex and professional fantasies wear out their welcome after the first pass. Fincher does some great stuff in this with the way he cuts a scene together (my personal favorite is the part where Daniel Craig tells Christopher Plummer he has to leave at a certain time, only for Fincher to later cut from the two men sharing a laugh to the face of a clock/which is at a station/next to a sign/for the train that Craig just failed to catch), but this isn't a story that needed telling past the potboiler stage, and it certainly didn't need to waste the time of so many talented people in doing so.
Red Letter Media/Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
There's a section in this early on--if you haven't seen it, I'd hate to ruin it for you--where the guy who makes these things essentially throws down the gauntlet harder than I thought was still possible. It's the part involving the Olsen twins and screaming. The second that a better statement on creating "content" for the internet is made, let me know. Right now, this is the champion.
Star Wars Uncut
I made it about seven minutes in, 2012
Statham's No Bronson, But Jan Ain't Got Shit On Foster, 2011
There's some bad action here, most of which is attributable to whoever it was that didn't have faith in the ability of the Statham/Foster duo to deliver intrigue without the help of all the overthought action pieces (behind a wall? off a high rise?), but don't let the comparison game get in the way of the general problem: this is a shitty movie that doesn't trust Jason Statham, and while you can get away with that when Jason Statham isn't in your movie, you can't when he very much is. Case in point? The best sequence in a Statham action flick shouldn't be a scene where Ben Foster executes three guys in less time than it takes to remember your mother's name. It should be a scene where Statham does something, preferably with his abs and his fists. Otherwise, you just fucked up the movie version of a peanut butter sandwich.
That Happened, 2011
Here's a brief (stolen) list of some of the movies that relate in part to Kill List: Rosemary's Baby, Dead Man's Shoes, Wicker Man, Angel Heart, Straw Dogs, Come and See, Full Metal Jacket. Genre hopping, upsetting, increasingly violent the sort of degree that more than a few will most certainly abandon watching it after a specific sequence set at a kitchen table (and will be right to do so, considering what follows), this is an excellent piece of endurance testing. It is fearsomely compelling and yet almost unwatchable. Recommended?
Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol
Scientology Totally Works, 2011
Following a solid piece of action-eering sullied only by its prominent usage in this film's many trailers, Ghost Protocol--which is a much more ridiculous, and therefore far better title than MI:4 would have been--turns its lens on the introduction of its main character. In keeping with Cruisian law number 714, which states that Tom prefers for his acting to circulate prominently around a character's proclivity for athletic equipment (see Few Good Men, see Top Gun), we're treated to the sight of Mr. Ethan Hunt playing with a rubber ball. It's a great reminder of what these movies are all about: a dude who has balls and does shit. Introspection is fun for some, but for this guy, the game's the thing, and if you don't have one to task him with, he'll find one all on his own.
It's a big fake out though. The real introduction comes next. As our phenomenally physically qualified Hunt stalks, rolls and elbows his way out of a prison riot, with Frank Sinatra cheering him own, a funny thing happens: you see it. It's a weird moment, the one where your brain clicks on a little sharper, realizing that this is going to be one of those action movies where you can't figure out how they did it, because aw shit did ya see that?!
The entire rest of it is like that, and it only lets up so that Simon Pegg can roam around and make his co-stars (only one of whom ever really "acts", which is why he seems so out of place) laugh at all the Simon Pegg-type reactions he has to things. Everybody will have their own favorite set pieces; mine is definitely the one where Cruise hits the roof of a passing vehicle and falls onto the ground. It's not as flashy as any of the rest of them, and it certainly won't show up in anybody's highlight reel, but there was just something about it that called back to those post Supercop Jackie Chan movies: the honesty of a badass getting older, and yet still willing to get smacked around to make the shot work.
Until They'll Put E.T. On Netflix Streaming, 2011
The thing that made that JJ Abrams Star Trek movie worthwhile was that it took something completely unwatchable (Star Trek) and made it tolerable for the first time. In Super 8, all he seems to have done is take something that was totally fine (The Goonies, E.T., your working memory) and brush it up with more nostalgiac dickpulling. The scene where Elle Fanning "acts" is pretty fantastic, but beyond that, this is just a waste of Eric Taylor's time. Ugh.
Patrice O'Neal Elephant In The Room, 2011
One Night Stand featuring Patrice O'Neal, 2005
Richard Pryor Live at the Sunset Strip, 1982
For whatever reason, it's the One Night Stand that made me laugh the hardest of these three, despite Pryor's classicness and the jaw-dropping terrorism of Elephant In The Room. Maybe it's because One Night Stand is the more violent performance, a torrent of energy from a man hungry to prove himself? All of these are great, though. Not a weak show in the bunch.
The Last Picture Show
Quaid Was Always Crazy, 1971
Lovely film, blessed with what has to be one of the all time scene stealing performances from Cloris Leachman. Every moment she's on screen it feels like everything around her is holding its breath, even the inaminate objects. The way she looks at Timothy Bottoms can rip your guts out in a way that Cybill Shepherd's absurd beauty can only hope to mimic.
Hell Yes, 1968
-Tucker Stone, Matt Seneca, 2012