LFF 2011: Like Crazy ***

Relationships are hard enough without visas, stretches of water and time differences standing in your way. Writer-director Drake Doremus’s new romantic indie drama, Like Crazy, tackles the tricky issues faced by any fledgling couple, in addition to trying to keep love alive while separated by two continents.

British college student Anna (Felicity Jones) is coming to the end of her summer term at an LA university, but has fallen for American student Jacob (Anton Yelchin), and the pair cannot bear to be parted. She decides to stay the summer, overstaying her student visa. When she returns to the UK then arrives back in the States, she is banned from entering the country. Can their long-distance love survive, particularly when both have established lives on two continents?

Doremus’s style of film is very much improvised, much like watching a pseudo-documentary about the perils of flouting immigration law. Although sweet at the start, it also feels quite claustrophobic, as if we are a ‘prying voyeuristic eye’ – like Big Brother – on the couple in their more intimate moments of passion and conflict. Jones and Yelchin initially explore their characters’ intense feelings fully on camera in a touching, yet anxious and cautious manner, without all the slushy beginnings of more traditionally set romance dramas. Doremus and Ben York Jones’s script does not shy away from portraying the more mundane or awkward times in a relationship, in addition to the blissful ones.

As the story progresses, and further obstacles present themselves, you get to witness the stresses and strains on their relationship, even when Jacob is reunited with Anna and trials living in London because of her blossoming career. Everyday life permeates the foundations of good intentions, highlighting the cracks and social differences between the pair, and it’s an emotional rollercoster that the couple always find themselves riding. The believability of their struggle is largely down to Jones and Yelchin’s naturalistic style of acting – the latter no stranger to playing intense and tortured souls within an indie context. Their engaging rapport is what fuels the story’s authenticity that they manage to construct almost effortlessly, and sometimes without words necessarily being spoken.

As the romance takes different twists and turns and some dead ends, Doremus’s modern-day Shakespearean tragedy is a thing of both beauty and danger; there is one point when you wish the pair would part ways, if only for their individual sanities. Nothing is easy to stomach in this, even in the couple’s happier moments that will undoubtedly unravel if left unmanaged.

At the same time, there are irksome moments of overindulgent pondering from both parties, particularly as when they are apart, the story is effectively more interesting. It’s also hard not to take the moralistic high ground and say how daft, almost arrogant Anna is for not just returning to the UK and waiting it out for 2-3 months, before she could have easily got another visa and returned Stateside – and without all the hassle. In a sense, the narrative then has to keep finding more reasons to convince us of why this couple should be together, especially when Jacob finds an attractive and available partner in Sam (Jennifer Lawrence) which detracts from witnessing the separated lovers’ true feelings. The inference that both are ‘creative’ beings almost justifies some pain and suffering, but if this is the case, it stands as a poor justification for them being together.

Nevertheless, Doremus uses the talents of his leads to full effect, constructing sure-fire career highlights for both Jones and Yelchin in Like Crazy. Yelchin gives nothing new in this, playing to his obvious strengths. Sadly, however ethereal at times, and brave of Jones, you cannot help but crave a little more Jones sardonic wit, much like the other feisty characters she has played. Indeed, the fact that Anna is so foolish to start off with and seems not to learn any valuable lessons as the story continues – even allowing for her being led by her heart – goes against the usually smart and assertive screen persona Jones has successfully created for herself and is admired for. Whether Like Crazy is a love story in tragic honest or not all, all depends on you rooting for Doremus’s characters from the beginning.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2011: The Descendants *****

It’s Hawaii – but not as we know it. Writer-director Alexander Payne has set one of star George Clooney’s most anticipated releases, The Descendants – since its unveiling at the BFI LFF 2011 – in paradise. But it’s a paradise of a viewing kind that is the perfect combination of dramedy, tragedy and familiar fallouts that simultaneously brings tears of joy and sorrow, with seemingly effortless effect. And with a sprinkle of the Clooney magic in this, its possibilities are endless for the route the story will take.

Matt King (Clooney) is a workaholic lawyer who has lost touch with his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and his two teenage daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). After a freak boating accident that hospitalises his spouse, King must reconnect on his less-than-idyllic home life. But in doing so, dark secrets bubble to the surface, while King must decide on whether to sell his family’s prized strip of sun-kissed Hawaiian land to property developers.

Admittedly, in one of Clooney’s most perfect castings to date that has seen the actor get nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars this year, as well as take the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, Clooney is given the opportunity to focus on all the screen characteristics that make him so appealing, all within an anti-charm offensive. King is by no means an instantly ‘likable’ character – overcoming the envy at his surroundings, his flaws are more apparent than his positives. However, the lure of the scenery plays wonderfully in contradiction with the daily troubles of a man who pretty much ‘comes of age’ in this story, re-learning some long-forgotten life lessons and priorities. As we go along on King’s journey, we grow very fond of him and all he has accomplished, and his ‘rebirth’ leaves you with a huge sense of fulfilment and ultimate joy – plus there is a lot of laughter along the way.

Payne’s film has an almost naturalistic flow to it – like tuning into a reality TV show about the goings-on in the Hawaiian ‘burbs. Again, Clooney’s easy manner works a treat in this setting, but not without the story’s little antagonists to break the lush daydream. US TV actress Woodley has made a big impression after this – including being nominated at the Golden Globes. She expertly hones her sharp and dry comic retorts with that of Clooney’s, especially in one of the funniest, quirkiest comedy duo scenes in a long time, when father and eldest daughter confront sleazy property developer Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) on the porch of his holiday condo. Nick Krause is your typical, irresponsible teen as dopehead Sid, who ironically starts to make more sense in King’s topsy-turvy world than the things he used to hold dear.

Judy Greer as Speer’s cheated wife comes into her own – with a subtle supporting effort from Clooney – in Elizabeth’s hospital room, in a heart-wrenching confessional that is laced with black humour. In fact, Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have stayed fairly true to Kaui Hart Hemmings’ touching novel, really getting the essence of what makes these characters work, and picking up on some highly astute observations that anyone in their situation would want answers to and react as such.

Payne’s The Descendants is intelligent comedy, never trying to coerce the situation into gaining some false laughs where they are unjustified, or gratuitous within the seriousness of the moment. Its relaxed tone – a delightful far cry from the situations you and the characters are faced with – is replicated throughout right to the very end that is a curious scene, but one that succinctly concludes the family’s next chapter. This is a Clooney triumph not to be missed.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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X: Night of Vengeance *

Those making films on the subject of female exploitation, especially prostitution, need to be fully alert of not falling into the trap of aligning themselves with the very individuals that fuel a misogynistic interest. Sadly, even with the dangerous locations of Sydney’s very own red-light Kings Cross district on show for the international audience to see, co-writer-director Jon Hewitt and partner, writer Belinda McClory’s new crime thriller X: Night of Vengeance steps into voyeuristic territory with worrying effect.

Spartacus actress Viva Bianca plays jaded high-society call girl Holly Rowe who is called to one last well-paid threesome, before escaping for good on a plane for a new life in Paris, France. After a freak shower accident, she is forced to quickly find ‘a brunette’ off the street, and offers 17-year-old runaway and fledgling hooker Shay Ryan (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) the job for the night. While partying with the John, the two witness his brutal killing, and go on the run from the killer and the law in one night of hell.

As much as Mark Pugh’s commendable cinematography captures each low-lit scene well, and you want – and need – to be moved by the two female survivors navigating their way through Sydney’s seedier side, Hewitt’s X ultimately reveals very little purpose and substance. More disturbingly, it depicts each attractive leading lady ‘of the night’ as a leggy glamour puss, easily earning a fast buck; it’s as though the writer/director has got a leg fetish or a fixation with stocking ads (as the poster shows). In some scenes, the camera is allowed to linger too distractingly over the actresses’ naked skin, far longer than is necessary to capture the sense of desire from the point of view of the paying client then fails to counterbalance this with any sobering and poignant punch of the lifestyle’s grim reality.

Like a B-movie or straight-to-DVD-movie, the acting is wooden on the whole, and every supporting actor is portrayed one-dimensionally, complete with scraggy-looking, deranged street hookers, pimps and junkies and bent, psychotic coppers. The result is blatant stereotyping that adds nothing to the film’s intended impact, short of short, sharp violent shocks at intervals that fizzle out unspectacularly. X also has the annoying habit of offering up bit parts that seem to go nowhere, such as the street urchin desperate for a fag all the time who disappears around the corner once more after speaking to Shay, never to be seen again.

The film’s lack of plausibility comes into question too; why would Holly know Shay was a) a prostitute and b) available for the threesome job, purely based on the young girl’s explosive episode in front of her taxi; and why would Shay look in on a suffering drug addict next door in the frightening, pay-by-the-hour hotel she is hiding out in?

Hewitt’s film tries to offer the token romantic ‘good guy’ in gentle cabbie-in-shining-armour Harry, played by Eamon Farren, so that not all mankind is tarnished by the same grubby brush as the manipulative males in the story. Even so, Harry’s on-queue rescues seem incredible, and as a grown man, his fond attraction for child runaway Shay is borderline unhealthy, especially when he does his creepy magician tricks for her, all with the purpose – we suspect – of demonstrating that dreams and ambitions are paramount, however tough life gets.

As raw and tragic as X tries to be, it stumbles over its delusional awe of the dangerous underworld and its alluring perks, and is trapped in a vicious circle of having to make its leads ‘desirable’ in order to titillate and retain interest, while desperately trying to depict how rotten the whole existence is. The film ends as oddly as it begins and leaves you feeling nothing more than perplexed at its ultimate motive, aside from being another example of cinematic exploitation from Down Under, which sadly fails on so many levels.

1/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2011: W.E. ***

Madonna’s second foray into film directing naturally raises more scrutiny than is focused on her new film itself, which is a pity because W.E. produces some memorable moments among its flawed narrative. In fact, had you not known it was the star in the writer-director’s seat, this love story still makes for a haunting picture of obsession that is pleasantly surprising to watch, and offers some strong female performances.

W.E. tells the story of two fragile but determined women separated by six decades – Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the American divorcée King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) abdicated the British throne for back in 1936, and New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) living in 1998 who is obsessed with Simpson and what she perceives was the ultimate love story. Winthrop’s research that includes visiting the Sotheby’s auction of the Windsor Estate reveals that the couple’s life together – as with Wally’s own troubled marriage – was not as perfect as she first imagined.

The most significant thing you take away from W.E. is Andrea Riseborough’s huge talent – star of Brighton Rock and Made In Dagenham, and the exciting knowledge at how her career should go stratospheric after her Wallis portrayal, regardless of any criticism of the director or film itself. She is a creature of pained and compelling feminine beauty in this, an apt chameleon of emotions and thoughts stuck in a daydreamy, if rather bizarre and often uneven time-travelling narrative.

As Wallis in the story’s flashbacks, Riseborough is perfectly cast to fully flesh out the image and the workings of the woman behind one of the biggest 20th Century royal scandals – even if Madonna only touches on Simpson’s Nazi Germany sympathies with the odd comment in the script. With D’Arcy commendably playing the confused but besotted ‘puppy dog’ Edward or ‘David’, Riseborough is able to relay both Wallis’s intentional and unintentional manoeuvres that ultimately conclude with her living like a trapped bird in a gilded cage. As this is a favourable Simpson portrayal, you cannot help but feel a slight dig at ingrained British conceit; the cynics among us might draw parallels with the American superstar’s own failed relationship with a Brit on these shores.

The scenes from the past are beautifully imagined and elegantly shot with the same attention to detail and chimerical quality as Tom Ford’s own tragic love story, A Single Man. However, the present ones with stunning Cornish playing the unhappy wife of a philandering British doctor feel confused and often claustrophobic, without the breathing space to adequately set the mood at times. Even with Cornish’s bereft allure as a woman trying to find happiness within her Simpson obsession, Madonna’s colourful mixture of composition and odd framing distracts from the equally fascinating story of an affluent female trapped in a miserable existence. Madonna has honed some engaging female performances, and Cornish is mesmerising as Wally as Riseborough is as Wallis.

There are some bizarre tangents to the film that grate and rudely awaken you from the dream, such as abused Wally’s escape to her lover’s loft apartment and her subsequent aimless wandering through downtown NYC that feels unnecessary, especially as she then finds the inner strength to carry on in her international quest to expose the truth behind the Windsor affair. It is at this point in the film that the contemporary tale gains any compassionate ground with the past, only for Madonna to opt for a lazy New York fairy-tale ending in Central Park, like something brash out of a rom-com.

Madonna’s directing inexperience aside, her vision for W.E. is an admirable one about two strong women; she gets to paint one of her apparent American heroines in a different light, however manipulative that may sound, in order to suggest how such a love affair remained so strong among public condemnation. Perhaps it’s the romantic in us all, but W.E. is a passionate love story you can easily venture into, without trying to rewrite history – its main weakness being the contemporary tale it uses to draw muddled parallels with, even though both its female leads do splendidly with the material.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Sitter **

Jonah Hill may appear to have grown up in Moneyball, and got some intellectual credibility in an adult environment, but he reverts back to the same self-depreciating man-boy role we all know him for in David Gordon Green’s new mainstream comedy, The Sitter. It’s really a half-hearted, mischievous Noughties twist on zany 1980s comedy adventure, A Night on the Town – more commonly known as Adventures in Babysitting, starring Elisabeth Shue, but minus the hot babysitter and the child-friendly fun.

Hill is immature Noah Griffith, a suspended college student fixated on one sexy girl down the road, Marisa (Ari Graynor), who he gives ‘personal favours’ to. Planning to hook up again later that night, Noah begrudgingly agrees to stand in and baby-sit instead, so that his mother can go on a date. Inexperienced and out of his depth, Noah is tasked with looking after the neighbours’ three dysfunctional kids: an anxiety-riddled, pill-popping, closeted son called Slater (Where The Wild Things Are’s Max Records), a potty-mouthed, celebrity-wannabe daughter called Blithe (Landry Bender), and adopted Hispanic son Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) who is hell-bent on causing maximum disruption and has an unhealthy interest in cherry bombs. Against the parents’ wishes or knowledge, and with an urgent errand from Marisa, Hill ventures into New York City with the kids to visit drug kingpin Karl (Sam Rockwell). What seems like a fairly straightforward task snowballs into utter chaos, and a few life lessons are learned by all.

Green and writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka never step out of the original 1980s’ mould, delivering the inevitable wild night combination of freaked-out anti-hero babysitter, out-of-control weirdo kids who come to respect their minder, and crazed bad guys on their tail; even the drug explosion incident in the car fails to be fully exploited, sidelined in favour of safer flatulence jokes. However, in true Pineapple Express style, the filmmakers have overloaded the expletives and borderline-offensive racial stereotypes, dished out the serious drugs and turned up the volume, possibly so Hill’s character Noah doesn’t seem as annoying as first thought. That said Hill easily plays within his comfort zone here, dripping with sarcasm and harsh home truths that it merely helps enforce what makes him appealing to fans in such coming-of-age comedies, rather than offers anything new to his CV.

In all honesty, the film’s hit-or-miss first impression all hangs on the opening scene, which gets down to business and firmly establishes this film’s R-rated, frat-boy stance of the Apatow-school ilk. Unlike the original, Green and co aim for the outrageous, rather than the genuinely funny to grab shock laughs; even down to young Blithe’s musical tastes and choice street slang – it’s only funny because it’s a naïve and corrupted kid delivering the adult lines, even though Bender does a commendable job. The real humour is actually in the background and random supporting acts that bolster the whole insanity, especially around Karl’s aerobics lair. Nevertheless, Rockwell is still enjoyable to watch, camping it up with guns blazing, but never giving anything different from the token drug dealers in Pineapple Express and the like.

All of the above absurdity needs to have a purpose, and Hill as Noah is perfectly positioned to be the unwitting messenger and ironically, the voice of reason to coax the kids out of their respective troubles. Green peppers the film with elements of Noah’s unsatisfactory existence, conveniently laying the blame for this screw-up on a parent. Disappointingly, this allows Noah to come out of this virtually unscathed, simply by wearing his heart on his sleeve that leads to the inevitable healing process for him and his charges. The Sitter is a lazy, write-by-numbers dramatic comedy that even has nauseating time for picking up a foxy lady. The end result is neither poignant nor clever – unless you’re a confused kid with identity issues, aged 15+, so some good could come from watching this.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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J. Edgar ***

This is yet another film full of promise about another enigmatic icon, J. Edgar Hoover, the man who created the FBI, and one of the most complicated and feared characters to walk the US corridors of power. The parallels between this film and the recently released The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep, are apparent: both films allow the controversial protagonist the chance to tell their side of events, but both brush over further enlightening those not in the know as to the seismic impetus their individual reigns had on politics and power.

The story explores the public and private life of J. Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his rocky rise to infamy as the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States, as well as the man credited with modernising police technology with finger printing and forensic evidence. It also touches on Hoover’s close relationships with his mother, Anna (Judi Dench), his colleague and companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and his loyal personal assistant, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).

It seems awards season encourages such films that calculatingly rely on a central performance to get the public intrigued and manoeuvre them to the top of the box office. Of course, this is no criticism directed at the actors themselves, with DiCaprio as J. Edgar giving the expected masterly and award-worthy performance, ensuring director Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic never completely runs out of puff. Indeed, watching DiCaprio age gracefully – unlike the farcical aging effects on Hammer as Tolson, who looks like a peeling extra from a horror film – is absolutely fascinating as the versatile actor moves between embodying the younger and older versions of J. Edgar very comfortably.

The rest of the film, though, feels cumbersome, overly long and too Hoover-biased to ever delve deeper into why J. Edgar really riled ex-Presidents, short of being a stick-in-the-mud and stubborn as a mule until his grating voice was heard. The only unpleasantness about the character established from the film was his childish fashion of making recordings of people in power to use at a later date – sounds like an early version of phone tapping, so feels very relevant today.

There is one memorable and well-acted scene involving Hoover and Tolson fighting on a weekend break in a hotel room that is the only glimmer of passion Eastwood manages to inject; it’s also the only evidence of Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black at work, trying to ignite an emotional core to this story by tapping into the closeted homosexual element that threatens to expose a public figure. However gifted DiCaprio is at capturing the inner workings of the colourful characters he plays, he is only as good as the material at hand, and sadly, Eastwood’s story often runs out of energy and excitement when the pace needs intensifying – much like his steadily wearier-growing elder protagonist.

Eastwood misses a trick in investigating the more compelling psychological influence J. Edgar Hoover had over his counterparts, and what inner personal battles really raged beneath the hardened exterior – even with a dress-up scene involving a grieving J. Edgar to hand at the end. Unfortunately, most will come out of viewing this film none the wiser about Hoover, but their faith in another DiCaprio triumph will be further endorsed.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2011: Coriolanus ***

Part The Hurt Locker meets Shakespearean war documentary, debut director Ralph Fiennes thrashes out the sound of conflict with a war of words in his cinema adaptation of his acclaimed stage play, and the British bard’s tragedy, Coriolanus.

Refusing to pander to popular rule and the wishes of his dominant mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), celebrated Roman general and war veteran Caius Marcius Coriolanus (Fiennes) is thus banished from Rome and takes his revenge on the city by siding with his sworn enemy, the Volscian army, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Fearing for the destruction of Rome, the failed politicians send Volumnia and his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), and son to plead with Coriolanus. His mother succeeds, and Coriolanus returns to the Volscian to declare a treaty between the two sides, only for Aufidius’s men to kill Coriolanus for his betrayal.

Coriolanus has been played by such greats as Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Ian McKellen, but with his resounding success on stage in close friend Jonathan Kent’s production at the Almeida in 2000, Fiennes is the obvious fit in the film’s lead role, having already made the part his own and knowing it inside out. Again, the usually shy and nervous actor draws out such power and pose, reaching into his darker being like a Shakespearean Voldermort, that you cannot help but watch him in awe. He injects such focused meaning into the Shakespearean word adapted by John Logan that it becomes a visual weapon itself, rather than the result of the words spoken alone.

However, much as the contemporary setting is fitting for the volatility, what with instability in and popular discontent with government in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, there is still an sizable element of adjustment as you try to marry the war-torn combat imagery with the older verse. This might leave some alienated and playing catch-up with the storyline – or worse still, turn the viewer off completely, after being lured by the big names. Again, those resigned to letting the power of the word and general ideals of populist revolution rise to the surface will find this enthralling.

In addition to Fiennes, some British acting elite helps turn this into a cinematic gold. Redgrave gives one of her career-defining performances in the harrowing mother-son confrontation scene. Butler growls and dominates the frame, drawing on his battle-hardened 300 characteristics once more to thrill fans. The only rather odd factor is a brief on-screen news report from Channel 4’s Jon Snow that feels totally out of context in the contemporary Roman/The Balkans environment.

In conclusion, Fiennes brings Shakespearean passion to the masses, reiterating that the Bard’s word is still as relevant in today’s politics as it was back in the 17th Century. Coriolanus roars its way into cinemas with full gusto and without taking any prisoners – like witnessing Fiennes going into thespian battle.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Haywire ****

The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo has done wonders for fighting fit females on screen recently, and any nimble, fearless female protagonist giving male counterparts as good as they get still fascinates audiences. Real-life Muay Thai Record holder Gina Carano who stars in new action thriller Haywire, directed by Ocean’s director Steven Soderbergh, appears to play another peeved brunette with a sociopathic tendencies, but transcends the ‘unhinged’ bracket because Carano’s mixed Martial Arts background makes her one of the most credible screen fighters in recent years: Think a ‘female Steven Segal’.

Carano plays Mallory, a black ops super soldier and ex US Marine who is hired to rescue a kidnapped journalist in Barcelona, but soon realises that her next mission is a deadly setup by the very people she trusts. She seeks payback for the betrayal.

Haywire is very much a Carano introduction: Although the choreographed fight scenes have been seen and done before, Soderbergh’s camera remains faithful to the sheer athleticism involved, never using choppy editing, whip-pans or gimmicky Kung Fu film moves to emphasise the action – it just captures the scene like an invisible spectator. In this sense, Carano’s gut determination and brute strength seem more realistically portrayed, as though you are witnessing a genuine and equally matched fight. Like a professional wrestler or Bond girl, Mallory has killer thighs as a secret weapon, which heightens her sex appeal, but without trivialising the danger of the situation at hand.

Coupled with a solid build, feminine curves and good looks, Carano as Mallory is the ideal anti-heroine to get behind, a contemporary woman’s woman, and such is the enthralling show she puts on, it’s almost disappointing when the final scene plays out. And as if to run rings around Lisbeth Salander’s fine efforts, black-leather-clad Mallory handles a motorcycle equally well, and is far more reasonable and likeable too.

Soderbergh combines his real-life action with slick Ocean’s-style, 60s-music-driven setup scenes to add the glamour. In fact, the film’s precise pacing never drops the ball or wastes any valuable time or action – even in the supposed downtime between jobs – keeping you engaged. Soderbergh also has a flair for making his cast look super cool, and with such a stellar turnout adding their magic touch to this, including Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor, even the most disagreeable character gets a few minutes of screen magnetism before their fate is sealed – plus for fans of Shame, Fassbender doesn’t disappoint in the flesh quota.

Mallory may easily be labelled ‘a female Bourne’ in some of the international, high-pressured chase scenes, and have her work cut out with the Salander allure at the box office, but Carano and Soderbergh have actually created a possible franchise in the character – like a tangible Lara Croft: Mallory is more human, more accessible and more creative in her missions that Haywire is certain to be Carano’s key to bigger notoriety and success – probably because the actress has actually seen real live action in her time.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2011: Shame ****

Steve McQueen said the reason his latest drama isn’t based in the UK is trying to get sex addicts over here to open up proved nigh impossible during the research into the film. Sex addiction is still a dirty, sleazy subject, with connotations of men in rain macs lurking precariously in dark corners waiting for favours that it’s hardly surprising. So, it’s a bold topic to tackle by McQueen, with an even bolder full frontal shot within the first 5-10 minutes of his muse and star ‘addict’ Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan – an ‘eye’ opener that makes no compromise for what lies ahead.

In New York City, successful executive Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life — which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction — is disrupted when his continually troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay. Her presence forces Brandon to confront his addiction as he begins to lose control.

McQueen has cultivated a disturbing and consistently dangerous environment to witness, not one necessarily of harm brought by another third party, but harm against oneself. His carefully ambivalent unravelling of Brandon’s existence is alarming as both character and viewer try to grasp the given situation, leaving you in no doubt as to the complexities and psychological terror that such an addiction can bring. In fact, McQueen presents almost ambiguous characters that invite interpretation as to the way they tick, or what could have happened in their past to explain present events, like lost souls with which we reflect our own opinions and prejudices off.

There is a distinct air of American Psycho sociopathy to the whole affair, in its coolness and calculated gain that ultimately requires an unexpected trigger for the story to change pace and evoke emotions, and hence, defence mechanisms. After Hunger, Fassbender gives a near faultless performance again at the hands of McQueen’s directing, and is utterly enthralling as Brandon as he deals with his demons, accumulating in a deeply felt outpouring of grief at the end that still leaves a question mark as to his imposed ‘road to recovery’. Mulligan as Sissy is beguiling in both a bittersweet and catastrophic sense, and after Drive, continues to demonstrate a compelling new angle for playing abused personalities with spirited determination, rather than the headstrong ones of past films.

McQueen’s Shame – aptly titled after one reoccurring word uttered by his sex addict interviewees – is harrowing without overtly trying to be, merely allowing its main players to act out their desires and face their consequences in an often claustrophobic environment, and without a sense of satisfactory closure. It also invites us to confront our own perceptions, and in doing so, interacts with them as to how the ending is subjectively taken. In this sense, it is the artist in McQueen engaging us in his filmic canvas of human suffering, without presuming to give us answers that others might arrogantly attempt to.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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