Film review – Prometheus (2012)

3 June 2012

Prometheus

The titan Prometheus was forever punished for defying the gods and advancing the human race. It’s an appropriate name for both Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel and the ship within the film that is carrying a scientific team into the depths of space on a mission to find the race of alien beings known as the Engineers. The Engineers are believed to have created the human race so are also Promethean figures, and like the human characters trying to find them, the Engineers have acted in a way that subverts the natural order and are heavily punished for their sins.

The most frustrating thing about Prometheus is how close it comes to being a brilliant film. Part of the problem is it seems to be unsure to what extent it is completely removed from the original four Alien films (the Alien vs. Predator crossover films don’t count) and to what extent it is part of the mythology that Scott began in his original 1979 science-fiction/horror masterpiece. The idea is that Prometheus depicts the events that happened on the planetoid LV-426 before the crew of the Nostromo landed there and made their deadly discovery in Alien (it has since been pointed out to me in comments such as this one that this is incorrect). The film therefore takes place within the Alien universe, but without being an actual Alien film. The resulting tension between being a completely original story and giving enough nods to the other films means that it doesn’t quite work as either a stand-alone film or an Alien prequel.

Prometheus certainly begins differently to the Alien films with a sequence on the Engineers’ home planet that evokes the climatic journey to the alien planet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with sweeping shots of landscapes that looks similar to that of Earth, but are also otherworldly. The sequence introduces the themes of creation and destruction with a close up of a DNA strand breaking down, before cutting to a brief scene on Earth, which is something that has never been done before in the franchise. Everything suggests that this is an origins story that contains the familiar themes of artificial and monstrous creation where nature is made nightmarish. Through the horrific idea of the parasitic alien creatures being violently born from with the chest of humans, the uncanny androids and the theme of the corporate and military interest in using the creatures for biological warfare, the original films explored a range of anxieties about motherhood and birth. Prometheus continues these themes, but adds the new idea that with the discovery of the Engineers, humans also now have a creator, making them not unlike the androids they have created. Not only is motherhood and nature being challenged in Prometheus, but this time God is also undermined.

Prometheus very quickly then moves into the mode of Alien and while it is not a borderline remake, as with the case of The Thing prequel, it still adopts a very similar narrative structure.  By doing so, its deviations from that structure stand out. Part of what makes the first four films so compelling is that they are about a close knit group of people, whether it be the crews of ships in Alien and Alien Resurrection, the marines in Aliens or the prisoners in Alien 3. In Prometheus the characters are travelling together and on the same mission, but they are all detached from each other to only ever substantially interact in groups of twos or threes. When one of the leading characters, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), goes through an extremely traumatic experience – in a wonderfully grotesque and disturbing play on the destructive motherhood theme – she does it alone and it barely gets a mention. There are great individual characters such as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the ships enigmatic android David (Michael Fassbender) and the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba), but there is too little interaction between them. Without the close-knit dynamic between the characters, what happens to them is of little consequence as far as audience sympathies are concerned.

Impressively Prometheus does incorporate the design of Alien and Aliens, although some of the technology seems more advanced than the films it is supposedly set before. Minor quibbles aside, it is great to see the same military hardware, vehicles and video transmitter displays from Aliens and the spacecraft and space suit designs from Alien. Most impressive is the use of HR Giger’s original designs for the Engineers and their technology, which visually link Prometheus to Alien in a way that is difficult for admirers of the original films not to be excited by. And while the score for Prometheus is overall unremarkable, the moments where it repeats some of the signature cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score do send a shiver down the spine.

Prometheus is a visual triumph and if nothing else it deserves credit for the moments when it does evoke the early scenes in Alien with the same degree of sinister wonder. However, there’s never the same sense of dread or excitement as the previous films and it does strange things like use a ridiculously made-up Guy Pearce to play an elderly man rather than simply cast an elderly man. Most perplexing is how close it comes to tying into Alien to then completely disregard a key detail at the very end. In fact, Prometheus would have benefited from removing one of its final scenes so that the audience could fill in the gaps themselves to make the films correlate rather than be presented with a scene that flatly denies correlation. For what it is Prometheus is a lot better than it could have been, but it also displays so much missed potential.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – A Dangerous Method (2011)

29 March 2012
A Dangerous Method: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

One of the few working directors who deserves to be recognised as an auteur is David Cronenberg and a signature element to his films is how much they invite psychoanalytic readings. So to have Cronenberg direct a film about psychoanalysis founders and pioneers Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is something of a cinephile’s dream come true. In A Dangerous Method, which was based on the play The Talking Cure (by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay) and the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method (John Kerr) Jung is using Freud’s talk therapy on Spielrein shortly after the First World War. Spielrein, who later became a psychoanalyst herself, becomes a forbidden object of desire that is too much for Jung to resist, resulting in an affair. Jung is therefore a quintessential protagonist for Cronenberg.  In his 2001 book The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, William Beard describes Cronenberg’s dominant theme from Videodrome (1983) onwards as a focus on ‘a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go.’ Jung is that transgressive creator and the realm where nobody else wishes to go, which is both hidden and repressed, is the unconscious mind of Spielrein.

While very much a dialogue-heavy historical film, all the recognisable elements of Cronenberg’s preoccupations can be found in A Dangerous Method. Given Cronenberg’s previous exploration of psychoanalytic concepts such as the monstrous feminine as defined by patriarchal culture, it could almost be argued that A Dangerous Method is the most obviously Cronenbergian film to date, despite the absence of visceral bodily horror that so defined his earlier films. In place of abject gore is Knightley’s portrayal early in the film of Spielrein suffering from hysteria, which has resulted from her intense self-loathing and guilt towards her own sexuality. Just as psychological conditions manifested physically in films such as The Brood (1979), Spielrein’s inner torment spills out into her body as she sits close to the centre of frame, almost looking at the audience, and contorts and writhes while Jung talks with her. Knightley is all chin and forehead, at times threatening to stab the audience with her face in a truly confronting and remarkable series of scenes.

Stylistically the film begins with a sense of melodramatic urgency to mimic Spielrein’s distressed state of mind. The music is full of dramatic flourishes as she is rushed into hospital by horse and carriage. As Jung’s methods take hold the film calms right down into the clinical style that is so common in Cronenberg’s films. The cinematography is crisp and in deep focus, carefully composed close-ups lovingly portray the different apparatus used in Jung’s tests and white dominates every scene. The hospital walls are white, the patients are dressed in white, Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) dresses in white and all the bed sheets are white. The use of white is not only clinical, but it suggests Jung’s detachment from not only his family and work – he by contrast always dressed in black – but from his own sexuality, despite being part of a new psychosis treatment that involves talking explicitly about the sexuality of others. We never see any sense of true physical or emotional affection between Jung and Emma, and even the birth of his child is deliberately kept off screen with the baby first appearing in the film not being nursed by Jung or Emma, but by an anonymous nurse.

The main source of tension in A Dangerous Method is Jung having serious doubts about his view of sex as a somewhat functionary act, needing to be controlled and at best something that can simply be described as ‘tender’ between man and wife. Continuing Beard’s arguments about the characteristics of Cronenberg’s protagonists from Videodrome onwards, Jung desires a transgressive transformation that will ultimately prove to be destructive, although in the case of the far more subdued A Dangerous Method, melancholia is the price Jung plays rather than literal obliteration. The transformation is to become somebody who indulges in their sexual whims to the extent that it means the ultimate betrayal of the doctor/patient relationship.

One trigger for Jung’s transgression is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who is the other extreme to Jung in terms of advocating indulging in every sexual desire possible and therefore both horrifies and fascinates Jung. Then there is Spielrein, the closest thing A Dangerous Method has to a monstrous feminine, whose passions twice spill blood into the pristine white colour scheme of the film and who becomes the figure that Jung spills his anxieties onto. Earlier in the film while Jung is treating Spielrein, they walk across a bridge high above a wild forest, suggesting an attempt to cross the divide between the conscious and unconscious mind. Later in the film they are depicted together adrift in a lake in a boat with suitably red sails, as if now lost together in the unconscious.

The final trigger for Jung’s transgression is his desire to undermine Freud, his father-figure type mentor whose methods he deviates from in classic Oedipal defiance. (And the Oedipal dynamic is completed by Spielrein who is first the object of Jung’s forbidden desire and then becomes a symbolic maternal figure after she aligns with Freud). Freud is differentiated from Jung in numerous ways including class, wealth and race, but it is once again the depiction of the spaces Freud occupies that combines the most interesting comparisons. While Jung’s offices and home are sparse and controlled environments, Freud works in a warmly lit cramped office that is filled with books, cultural artefacts and photos. Jung floats at sea or stands above a forest, while Freud walks through an elaborately manicured garden that allows for abstraction without loosing its sense of order and control. A statue of a sphinx stands in the garden, yet another reminder of the prevailing imagery of the monstrous feminine in folklore, mythology and psychoanalysis. Jung smokes a pipe, which requires careful preparation to arrange the tobacco in a concealed space to be respectfully enjoyed. Freud smokes a… does it even need to be written out?

A Dangerous Method is a puzzling film as despite being directly about psychoanalysis, it’s the most surface level of all of Cronenberg’s films. Rather than delving into the murky depths of the human mind, A Dangerous Method is more an opportunity for Cronenberg to stage an extended dialogue between historical figures whose work clearly means a lot to him. This is nonetheless compelling cinema, especially for audiences resigned to the fact that more questions are going to be asked rather than answered. Is sex an act of liberation, denial of the self or surrender? Strong arguments are put up in all instances and like all matters of sexuality, it seems the ones who are least comfortable with their own are the ones who make the most fuss about it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Shame (2011)

6 February 2012
Shame: Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan)

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan)

In The Lost Weekend (1945) Billy Wilder portrayed alcoholism as a serious affliction rather than a delightful and humorous eccentricity. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) Otto Preminger debunked the cliché of the drug-fiend to reveal that narcotic addiction afflicts even ‘respectable’ members of society. In Shame video artist and Hunger director Steve McQueen does something similar with the condition loosely described as sex addiction. The protagonist Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is not a comical sex maniac, but an outwardly stable and content man whose life is inwardly dictated by the need to continually orgasm, whether by masturbation, paying for prostitutes, looking at pornography or having sex with willing strangers.

Shame opens with a flashforward/flashback sequence where the events of several hours are edited together out of sequence to convey Brandon’s ritualistic lifestyle. Not unlike Henry Mancini’s score for the opening of Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Harry Escott’s music for the opening of Shame distinctively features a repetitive percussion to suggest a bomb about to go off; a continuous countdown to Brandon’s next release. As he methodically walks naked around his sparse apartment, often his head is out of shot but his penis displayed, frequently close to the centre of the frame, indicating how much it has defined his life. The production design emphasises industrial design, to suggest Brandon’s mechanical and compulsive sexuality. Shots in the film contain a strong depth-of-field and appear to be shot with a long focal length to visually flatten out the scene and render it lifeless.

Sex for Brandon is functionary. Like with substance addiction, the joy of the ‘hit’ has long gone and all that’s left is the necessity to feed the addiction. Very little emotion can be seen on his face, other than an intense look of concentration. On the subway when he makes eye contact with a woman and communicates his intentions with a steady gaze, there is something absent from his eyes. She conveys a range of emotions to indicate she is flattered, aroused, nervous, apprehensive and even a bit scared, while he just maintains his look of hopeful expectation. She’s not an object of desire for him or even some kind of sexual prey; she’s simply an opportunity to feed his addiction.

The illusion of control plays a big part in Brandon’s condition. He has created an isolated life that allows him to feed his addiction, although a moment early in the film where he nervously reacts to his work computer being taken away suggests that he is not as on top of his impulses as he likes to believe he is. He also underestimates how a sex life based on artificial representations of sex through pornography, prostitution and anonymous encounters in alleyways, has hijacked his ability to form intimate relationships. In a key scene he is unable to perform with a potential romantic partner and then has no problem re-enacting with a prostitute a sexual encounter he saw a couple of days before. Both scenes take place in an open white room, dominated by a large, black widescreen television representing how sexual imagery and sexual representations have overridden real sexual connections.

Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) intrudes into the insular world he has created for himself, first through a series of answering machine messages that play while he is trying to masturbate, and then by showing up at his apartment and moving in with him. As a contrast to his ordered and almost ritualised life, Sissy is chaotic, disruptive and breaks down boundaries between Brandon’s private and professional life. She is also the only person Brandon relates to and is burdened with her own compulsive need to be loved. They are two sides of the same coin: Brandon is emotionally detached while Sissy is overly emotional, and yet both are bonded by an unexplained shared experience that has prevented them from being able to forge real relationships. In a mesmerising sequence consisting of close-ups on both their faces, Brandon watches Sissy sing at a bar. The deep love that they have for each other and the sorrow they feel for being so disconnected is expressed on their faces, revealing they are damaged people who are more than their compulsions.

Sexual politics are never the primary focus of Shame, even though issues of sexuality and representation underpin the entire film. While Brandon’s sexual appetite has been defined by the patriarchal commodification of sex, which reduces women to titillating body parts rather than whole beings, the film is careful not to suggest that Brandon is exploiting anybody or harbours aggression towards any of the women he has sex with. He is the product of a sexualised society rather than a victim or perpetrator of it. Women for Brandon are frequently the means to an end, but that doesn’t mean he hates them. Shame even includes a homosexual scene to indicate Brandon’s quest for sex is based on the need for the release rather than fulfilling any actual desires, sexual or otherwise. The double edged-sword is that this scene seems to also exist to use homosexuality to suggest Brandon’s downward spiral, which is disappointing considering how smart and sensitive the rest of the film is.

Shame is nevertheless an impressive addition to the small group of films that attempt to explore the nature of addiction. It’s a more conventional film than Hunger, but it still showcases McQueen’s remarkably ability to generate tension through long takes and to use the production design to communicate complex and difficult issues without overstatement, judgement or sensationalism. Despite the themes of detachment Shame is somehow also a beautiful film with just enough warm light glowing around the screen’s edges to keep the audience entranced.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Jane Eyre (2011)

11 August 2011
Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska)

Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska)

The challenge of adapting a novel, especially one that is so loved and very much considered a classic, is to ensure that it captures the essence of the source material while being a cinematic work that is successful on its own terms. Charlotte Brontë’s 1857 proto-feminist novel Jane Eyre is certainly one that carries an enormous amount of cultural baggage since it is so highly esteemed as an important literary work. Fortunately, this 2011 adaptation by Cary Fukunaga wonderfully brings the story to life in a way that those of us who have never read the novel can be completely seduced by.

A considerable part of what makes Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre work so well is the casting, especially with Mia Wasikowska in the titular role. Wasikowska is the right age to play Jane and embodies the degree in which Jane is physically a young woman but emotionally an older soul. She brings to the part both a sympathetic vulnerability and a determined stoicism that she needs to protect herself after an affectionless childhood and a disciplined adolescence. Jane is humble and withdrawn, yet as the film progresses Wasikowska’s performance hints at her frustrations and yearning for something more. Her battle of wits with the mysterious and powerful Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender) generates a subtle sexual tension as the two damaged souls size each other up with the potential for something more enticingly suggested.

Jane Eyre: Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender)

Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender)

Much of the film expressively conveys Jane’s emotional state and in that regard Fukunaga enhances the Gothic elements of the story where the setting takes on various characteristics to express Jane’s mental and emotional state. Passionate outbursts arrive with thunderous storms, love is delivered in sun-drenched spring mornings and windswept desolate moors are perfect for anguish and despair. And at the centre of it all is Thornfield manor with its dark secrets and mysteries.

Despite the abundance of film style that’s used to express Jane’s emotional state, the film never feels overtly melodramatic due to Fukunaga’s modern visual style. The camera is often positioned from behind Jane’s head, an increasingly common technique to situate the audience right behind the character to see the world as they see it, but in a slightly detached observational way to convey Jane’s guardedness. A real pleasure from the film is watching her and Rochester lower their defences to deliver lots of wonderfully tormented romantic dialogue.

This new adaptation truly announces Wasikowska’s arrival as an actor of significant talent. Fassbender also continues his incredibly good run and he is fast becoming one of his generation’s most versatile performers. Jane Eyre is only Fukunaga’s second feature film and it establishes him as a director worth following. The composition of light and colour in every shot that he achieves with cinematographer Adriano Goldman conveys a remarkable cinematic eye. Far from being a worthy and stodgy literary adaptation, Jane Eyre is a passionate and romantic love story that feels as fresh as it must have done when Brontë originally wrote it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Hunger (2008)

18 November 2008

Hunger is the startling film debut by the Turner Prize winning English video artist Steve McQueen. Set in the Northern Irish Maze Prison in 1981, Hunger begins during the notorious Blanket and No-Wash protest, led by Irish Republican Army prisoners who wanted political prisoner status. While the focus of the film is initially on one of the prison guards and a new prisoner, the later part of the film centres on Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender from 300) who led the hunger strike that would eventually kill him.

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