A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

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Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols

A man gets intense apocalyptic nightmares. He hides this from his family and begins to build a shelter, but this begins to strain his relationship with his family and the community.Is he just plain crazy or is there something bad on the horizon?

Michael Shannon gives a subtle layered performance as Curtis LaForche. He communicates the difficulty of having an unexplainable problem. He feels something bad is about to happen. It’s nothing concrete but something about the world doesn’t seem right. He loves his wife, but doesn’t want to worry her. He communicates all this with his face.

Jessica Chastain is a believable onscreen wife and mother. A lot of cinematic mothers tend to be unconvincing and this is noteworthy. Most cinematic wives have too much makeup on, do not carry enough worry in their eyes and most importantly they perform without a familiarity  of their own spaces. When Jessica Chastain does household chores or embraces her own child, she does it with a muscle memory as if she performs these tasks daily. When Curtis and Samantha argue, it is a very realistic portray of how a married couple fights. This added a lot of believability to the story, especially when the central husband and wife relationship comes into strain. Actually yeah, I’d like a wife like Jessica Chastain in this movie.

You know how when you continually look at leaves being tossed in the wind or waves crashing upon a beach, you start to space out and ponder about the workings of the universe? The film’s cinematography captures that feeling exactly in scenes where Curtis looks at his environment around him with suspicion. In Take Shelter, nature is an uncertain place. Underlying beneath it’s beauty is something bigger behind that’s going on that we are unaware of. To say it’s beautiful cinematography is almost missing the point, it’s definitely the deepest, most communicative cinematography I have seen this year.

This is Jeff Nichols’ second film. He has mastered the art of slow-boiled tension, which is a storytelling technique that is on the brink of extinction in an age where the short-attention gene is on the rise. I also love how the story moves forward and how fresh story points are revealed. There’s not much Basil Exposition, they just jump right into it and at times the audiences is set to figure out the context. David Wingo’s soundtrack is ambiguous and embodies a creeping sensation of foreboding. And along with the story, this ambiguity uneases the audience. After all, do we want Curtis to be crazy and committed to an asylum? Or do we want to see something big bad happen?

The story has a strong grasp of how the audience feels about the story in any given moment. It knows when to slow down and does so, particularly in the shelter sequence where Samantha and Curtis discuss whether to exit the shelter. You want and dread the conclusion at the same time. The ending is truly something. It’s an glorious epic finale.

And I have to say, I was very pleased to be manipulated this way.

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

I’m a loyal Woody Allen fan. My favorite Woody Allen films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, and Stardust Memories. Even the so-called bad Woody Allen (I didn’t think Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else was terrible, I thought they were still funny) films manage to entertain me. I like that he’s disciplined and a no-nonsense writer and director.

I’m currently battling the cliche of whether I should make a Top Ten List of 2011. I wasn’t going to write a review for Midnight in Paris as I saw the film months ago. But watching Hugo and seeing it’s attempt at trying to enchant me reminded me of how Midnight in Paris did it so much better. Hugo did it with the use of space, but Midnight in Paris does it with space and character. This movie truly enchanted me. So I figure instead of writing a top ten list, I’ll just write reviews of the films that I liked in 2011 instead. So on with my thoughts…

If there’s anything Woody Allen does well, it’s casting (also to the credit of Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor). He find the right people to do the job through spotting the distinct characteristics in actors and susses out their aura to tell a story. This is the best use of Owen Wilson in a role that I have seen. I never knew what was unique about Owen Wilson till now. And here’s what it is: Owen Wilson embodies a sense of wonderment (“Wow, look at that.” “Gosh, that’s amazing!”) and he  acts as an avatar for the audience in experiencing Paris’ beauty. Yes, of course, we know Paris is beautiful and enchanting but it’s through his energy that the viewer can feel enraptured by everything around him.

That also said, I also think this was my favorite Adrian Brody performance as well. This was another actor that I never could tell what his strength was, but too like Owen Wilson, he shines in Midnight in Paris. I know of Salvador Dali and seen enough of his photographs to know his physicality and the specific way he stares at people. I do think Brody captures that precisely in this small role. It’s also refreshing to see Rachel McAdams play a bitchier character. If there’s an award for best ensemble cast, Midnight in Paris  should take the cake. Also noteworthy performances were Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway (who recites all his dialogue in Hemingway-like prose). Through the scope of Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender, who is currently writing a novel about nostalgia, every artist’s appearance is a delightful joy. It’s like crashing an old costume party and meeting all your idols.We see how he’s excited to be amongst these people and as the audience is seduced to wanting to hang out with the Lost Generation as well.

Paris is a major character in the story. The opening montage of Paris evokes a similar stroke Allen did in the opening montage in Manhattan. It captures the energy of the city and it embodies a personal love for the place. We see the streets, the restaurants, the book stores, the cafes and we imagine what we would do there if we were there. The film takes it to almost a jokey tongue-in-cheek level since you have the First Lady of France (Carla Bruni, whom I also like her music) as the local French tour guide.

The film charms you and you can’t help but fall into it and be whisked away to a fun joyful place. This is easily going onto my favorite movies of the year and now officially one of my favorite Woody Allen pictures.

What else can I say? Woody Allen, give me a hug!

Related Reviews
Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

A Separation by Asghar Farhadi

The famous acting coach Roy London, who is responsible for coaching many famous Hollywood stars, taught his students that there is ultimately one motivation to any dramatic scene: love. Each and every character in The Separation acts out in the exact same motivation: to protect their family. This simple motivation continues to spiral and spin out into an increasingly morally-ambiguous complex situation.The effect is that of a gripping thriller.

If there is ever a better example that filmmaking is a team effort, that there is no one star, that an entire cast can be praised together, this should definitely be it.

This is a story that’s not afraid to let its characters be unlikable. The film never presents anybody you should root for in the traditional sense. At times, you just want to go up and smack them. Personally I related to the father Nader (played by Peyman Moaadi). That can possibly be a screenplay issue because the mother Simin (played by Leila Hatami) is actually sidetracked in this film. The story between the daughter Termeh (played by Sarina Farhadi) and the father turns up being the heart of the story even thought it’s initially presented as the struggle between the husband and wife.

There is a little moment between Nader and Termeh in a gas station where he forces his daughter to retrieve some change that the gas station attendant took as an extra tip. He looks at her proudly in the mirror and smiles as she talks to the attendant. When Termeh returns, he gives her the cash as a reward. Personally, that was the most touching scene in the movie. There are no moments like this between the mom and the daughter. I would have voted to add one extra layer to the Simin character.

This was good handheld cinematography, which I theorize is just shaky enough just to remove the impression of pre-visualized choreography but never shaky enough or choppy enough to lose the center of focus within the frame.

I really enjoyed the ending to this film. As a writer, I battle with the idea of open endings but the ending achieved two things that makes it a legitimate artistic touch. 1) It is the most logical end point. I bet if you asked the director about what happened after the ending, he would tell you he truly doesn’t know. 2) We watch tragedies to see a protagonist essentially go through something horrible that we ultimately escape as an audience member. The film’s final act is something almost too hard to watch and aesthetically is probably better left to the audience’s imagination.

Also, the film shows that you should never underestimate an end credits sequence, as it is can be effective as the final aftertaste of a story’s conclusion.