February is periodically the weakest month for cinemagoers. The Oscars hopefuls will all have paraded out in January in order to gain enough momentum to mount a strong charge at the major awards. Of course, all of them were outdone in a year where Harvey Weinstein actually put his astonishing Academy clout to good use and secured a richly deserved win for a black and white French mostly silent film shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. As has been debated ad nauseum of late, mistakes were inevitably made by the Academy at the nominations stage, but it’s tough to pick fault with the eventual winners from that sadly depleted field. And with the ebullient Billy Crystal back at the helm of the good ship Oscar Night, it was actually an enjoyable ceremony to watch (random Cirque du Soleil non-sequiturs aside).
Still, by the time January has ended, most of the films featured at the Golden Gong show have come and gone, with the few that missed the deadline left munching the scraps from the long-vacated golden table. Indeed, I must confess that “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” became such a laughing stock of gargantuan proportions that I haven’t summoned up the courage, or the financial justification, to go and see it yet.
The other reason February is always a barren drought of quality, or at least interesting, films is because the art films elevated to wider attention by success on the festival circuits of last year tend to wait until March or April, allowing the dust to settle outside the artist formerly known as the Kodak Theatre before sticking their head around the door. There is a sense that these films are rounding off last year instead of kick-starting this year, but that is inevitably the way of it. The art film releases of the autumn and winter months tend also to be festival favourites, but ones with star directors or actors in their arsenal with the clout to facilitate widespread distribution. For the likes of Ceylan, Sorrentino, Herzog and the Dardennes brothers it takes a little longer, and indeed next month sees all of them serve their latest tantalizing offerings on a silver platter to salivating cinephiles.
But, alas, that it all to come in March. This article is about February….
Perhaps the most disappointing this about my cinema-going this month is that even the two films boasting the talent and festival buzz to render them worthwhile tended to fall by the wayside. David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” seemed to fizzle out like a damp squib with festival audiences because it was too far a cry from the grotesquery of his body horrors, or the sheer macabre bleakness of his brooding and pessimistic recent dramas. The fact that he is making a reasonably uncontroversial (Keira Knightley getting spanked and regaling disturbed masturbatory experiences aside) period drama about the strained and complicated relationships even amongst the masters of psychoanalysis doesn’t especially bother me, as I’ve never been the biggest Cronenberg fan and tend to judge whatever is in front of me according to its own unique aspirations and merits. On this level, the film is actually successful enough: it’s an adequate and unfussy translation of a play to the screen which avoids theatricality and boasts three assured performances. Fassbender is reliably engrossing and transformative, Knightley risks the ridiculous in a heavily accented and physically hyperbolic performance but just about gets away with it thanks to sheer intensity, and Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is an outstanding piece of character acting which is easily the highlight of the film. However, the simple fact of the matter is that whilst I have no problem with this amount of talent not necessarily undertaking the most ambitious and exciting of projects, you would at least expect the chosen project to overcome the trappings of the blandly picturesque and mediocre stuffy and stultifying costume drama. The film is fine, but because it’s nothing more than this you do wonder why they didn’t choose something with more bite to do.
A much as I found “A Dangerous Method” a somewhat tedious and underwhelming affair, it did at least have some merits in the acting side of things, which is more that can be said of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” This is with the proviso that we accept that Elizabeth Olsen is clearly a good young actress straining to add profundity and gravitas to a role that allows her to transmit merely paranoia and behavioral regression in favor of the damage she should be striving to convey. The script and direction of the film don’t precisely help her out on this point, as the commune cum cult from which she is escaping is one to which he increasing displays of fear and animosity don’t ring entirely true. She becomes an instigator whilst living with the group, overlooking her own narcotic-induced rape to indoctrinate others in the ways and patterns of life with cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes, whose apparent charisma and oppression derives entirely from the baggage he brings from his role in “Winter’s Bone,” rather than anything actively achieved in this piece.) It is only when the group’s activities widen to break-ins and murder that Olsen’s Martha realizes how deeply involved she is in a way of life that is deeply deluded. Many have praised the way director Durkin contrasts the pretentious bourgeois world of Martha’s sister (to whom the young girl flees) with the tranquil rural isolation of the commune, and accounts of those genuinely unsettled and disturbed by the film’s atmosphere are wide ranging. For my part, too much time is spent in the aftermath of Marcy’s time in the commune, and relies upon an omnipresent dread which isn’t through the limited flashbacks to the commune’s activities given adequate time to develop its stranglehold. The film was therefore to me cold and uninvolving.
“Rampart” boasts another great character performance from Woody Harrelson in addition to his highly impressive resume, but that is again pretty much it. In the style of “The French Connection” or “Bad Lieutenant,” the film seeks to place against a dark background of police corruption and criminal acts which rock the entire city (in this case the real life model of the wide-ranging Rampart scandal in pre-millennial LA) a character study of someone who embodies and comes to carry the burden of the personal and macrocosmic sin around him. Unlike “The French Connection,” not enough prescience is given to the state of the city, and so we have no firm spectrum against which to assess the character’s descent (surprisingly given the unbelievable complexity of the real-life Rampart corruption), and unlike “Bad Lieutenant” the protagonist’s slow collapse is not extreme or dramatic enough in itself to hold our sole interest.
“Chronicle” is a film I ended up seeing after the screening of “Young Adult” turned out to be full, yet this diversion lead me to one of the more surprising films of the month. Essentially a paranormal superhero story rendered as a found-footage horror piece, the script and style of the film allows for some great counter-intuitive ideas to develop. When the young protagonists interact with fellow school friends and explore the limits of their powers, there is a genuine freshness, honesty and authenticity to their behaviour. It’s an unvarnished and believable evocation of teenage life, enhanced by the comedy of the central trio (whose relationships and characters are drawn remarkably well) filming their early superpower pranks in the vein of “Jackass” stunts. The strict adherence to a found footage aesthetic ultimately distracts more than supports the story (as creative as some sequences are they come across as ostentatious and unnecessary), and the final battle is of a scale poorly out of synch with the modesty of what has gone before, yet this was a worthwhile trip to the multiplex.
Film of the month, by a country mile, is “The Muppets.” This was quite simply the most joyous and entertaining cinema experience I’ve had since “The Artist,” and whilst the film contained an abundance of laugh out loud moments what was infinitely more resonant was the general feeling of warmth and fun exuding from every pore of the piece. Maintaining every single vestige of what made the Muppets of old so anarchic, fresh and unorthodox, weaved into a storyline that conveys both their long absence and eventual timelessness, the film is a riot of cheerily tongue in cheek songs (“if I’m a man, that makes me a muppet of a man”), affecting and hilarious performances (though I’m still not sure if Chris Cooper’s villainous turn is deliberate or just horrendous), and fantastic comic set pieces. Highlights include a barbershop quartet performing a Nirvana anthem, Fozzie Bear’s whoopie cushion shoes, and some singing chickens which lit my face up like Las Vegas.
Next month, some big hitters from Turkey, Belgium, and death row…