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‘Shame’: The Skull and the Pound of Flesh

Michael Fassbender is a good-looking man but as ‘Shame’ continued on to its bitter, brutal climax, I noticed I was hardly seeing the person any more. Even the character, Brandon, who is mostly silent and empty but completely believable, was gradually stripped away. All that was left was a skull.

It was particularly obvious in one very depressing threesome scene. (The sex in this film is not at all titillating.) A skull with a body attached, gruesomely contorting the skin and flesh that encased it as it drove itself to temporary gratification. When it wasn’t having sex, or jerking off, or seeking sexual gratification in other ways – any way, really – it moved smoothly and almost invisibly in the world of men. Its work and shelter were secondary to its pursuit of every kind of orgasm.

Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, is the opposite: always on show, always giving everything she has, but almost always into holes which give her nothing back. Given their opposing personalities, Sissy and Brandon are only able to connect for brief moments, usually in mutual anger or disgust. Finally, through extreme means, they manage to feel and express affection for one another, but that too is only brief.

I really hope Brandon and Sissy help each other sort themselves out. The cycle of addiction and gratification is strong, though. It’s going to take a lot of work.

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‘Drive’: Machine Versus Horse

IMDb / Ebert
Rating: Recommended
Alternate JW Title: ‘Hero Story

The opening sequence of ‘Drive’ had me thinking all my expectations about the film were correct. The Chromatics’ ‘Tick Of The Clock’ kicked things off, setting the tone with its confident, sinister, minimalist rhythm, with a telephone conversation laying out the terms of the agreement and a splendid pan across a barren room out onto the street lights below. A helicopter shot showed Los Angeles at night from above, sources of yellow light illuminating the city like controlled balls of flame, establishing LA as a character like Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’ did. The initial getaway job played out like a scene from ‘Driver’, a ten-year-old PlayStation game: all rough atmosphere, near collisions and police radio sounds. The whole film was going to follow in the same vein: a dimly lit, pulsating thrill ride through city streets and bad deals.

What I hadn’t picked was that ‘Drive’, and the nameless hero played by Ryan Gosling, would instead be cut from the same poncho cloth as the great Westerns. Throughout this opening sequence, and for much of the film, he is as silent and imposing as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; he even chews on a toothpick with the same brooding intensity. In the film’s bare-bones plot (which is little more than an accessory on which to hang a combination of allegories, images and music), Gosling’s driver appears from nowhere, changes everybody’s lives forever and then rides off into the sunset. There are good guys and bad guys, in that the bad guys must do bad and the good guys must try to do good.

Refn’s camera is almost fetishistic in its appraisal of Gosling. He is allowed to leave his chiselled features virtually motionless in many scenes, simply present and immaculate for our appreciation. He’s shot from low angles when driving or doing violence, the skills he has honed well enough to be his vocation, and from high angles when sharing scenes with Carey Mulligan, the woman who steals his heart. In place of a poncho, he has a distinctive jacket that he continues wearing even when it is covered with blood. These stylistic choices establish the driver as a hero, which is the chief purpose of the film (which, again, reminds me of Westerns more than any other genre).

This is what makes the central element of an extremely effective soundtrack – indeed, the film would not be nearly as interesting without it – so interesting. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ plays twice during the film, once during the sweet ‘getting to know you’ scenes between Gosling, Mulligan and Mulligan’s son, and then again at the film’s conclusion. The lyrics, over an unforgettable synth motif, repeat over and over:

A real human being
And a real hero

Gosling is certainly a clear hero, a classic Good Guy of few words driven to do the right thing to the right people and the wrong thing to the wrong people. Virtually the moment he sets eyes on Mulligan, one gets a sense he will protect her to the death – which he does, to all intents and purposes. Though a getaway driver, aiding criminals on a regular basis, his rule of only giving them five minutes of his time gives him a moral footing above that of his employers; he simply drives, until confronted with circumstances that force him to either flee or kill the ones who wish to kill him and the other Good Guys first. Being a hero, he faces his responsibility. He kills.

But Gosling’s driver is not a real human being. He’s a character in a film, as starkly as any character I can remember in recent memory. It’s because he is such an obvious, perfectly troubled, archetypal hero that he is not a real human being. A trick of a film called ‘Drive’ is that it leaves you wanting to believe its central character’s purpose was to drive, that cars gave him meaning and purpose, but they are merely a tool he uses on his heroic path. As are a hammer, the heel of his boot and a very sharp knife. The most human moments he has are those shared with Mulligan and her son, but these exist only to deepen his mythical status as a hero.

Indeed, Mulligan is the only truly human figure in the film. The mobsters, chiefly those played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are also archetypal Bad Guys or antagonists; they serve their own evil ends, gaining from others’ misfortune and eliminating anyone who gets in their way. Mulligan’s son, too, is unrealistic, a child with little purpose of his own other than to be offered a father figure in Gosling. Mulligan, however, lives and breathes every second of her performance as if it were true. She flirts awkwardly with Gosling and feels shame when he finds she’s kind of been leading him on. Her face demonstrates all the emotion of a young, conflicted woman.

One scene makes the contrast between the two characters and their respective world absolutely clear. As Gosling apologises for his involvement in an act that has changed Mulligan’s life, she slaps him – and immediately shrinks, looking down at the ground, scarcely able to contain her anger but dreadfully ashamed to have expressed it with violence. A stranger intrudes, and after Mulligan and Gosling reconnect with a time-stopping kiss – a bridge between their two worlds – Gosling brutally murders the stranger in front of her. She recoils in horror. As far as I can remember, they do not see each other again; Mulligan’s path leads to a continued life in the real world, while Gosling’s leads to heroic duty and death.

But he doesn’t die – at least, not that we get to see. Like Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, or – even more so – like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, he ensures the heroine’s survival and then disappears. His function is almost machine-like, reminiscent also of the T-1000 in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’. (You get the point. Film hero. Not human being.)

I guess this makes Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ a strange kind of character study – not of a believable person, but of a film archetype most notable in Westerns. It certainly isn’t the all-driving, slow-moving actioner I was expecting – and it is much better for it. It’s growing in my estimations with each passing hour since I left the cinema, when I usually tend to revise down my opinion after getting past the initial adrenaline rush of seeing a film on the big screen.

Two things to note before you go in:

1) With a film so caught up in genre concerns as this, the suspension of disbelief is essential, as is a willingness to forget whatever importance you place on plotting. The plot of ‘Drive’ is a framework for the exploration of genre ideas; in fact, there’s enough in there that I wouldn’t be surprised if other viewers read the film along different genre lines than I did.

2) The few scenes of violence in this film are completely visceral and brutal, mostly carried out with analogue implements to make it that much more tactile. You will likely flinch. Just remember: it’s only a movie.

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Film Review: ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2010)

IMDb / Ebert / Hoberman
Starring Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan
Written by Alex Garland
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by Mark Romanek


Rating: C (Careful)

Book-to-film adaptations are always a challenge. They’re a challenge for filmmakers trying to translate the feel of the written word for the screen, and they’re a challenge for audiences already enraptured with the book to accept with open minds.

Here’s a case in point. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I read it in 2007, a couple of months into my stay in Japan, and it completely blew me away. It was a brilliant idea, crafted into a grand and brilliant story, and written in an endearing matter-of-fact style through the voice of a devastatingly sweet and immature narrator. For all its superficial coldness, the depth of feeling and heart contained in its simple language gave rise to such massive potential for an emotional response, and that response would take you down as many rabbit holes as you let it. I felt like I understood people, and our potential as humans, better after reading this novel.

Of course it was always going to be made into a film. How could it not? All of the elements were there: a high-concept idea, a love triangle, Oscar-baiting pathos and (most importantly) a recognisable and well-established brand name. Surely the film would write itself?

Well, it didn’t. In Alex Garland, he of novels The Beach and Tesseract as well as the script for Danny Boyle’s beautifully misguided Sunshine, the production pulled in a very savvy and thoughtful writer – and I’m sorry to say that he went the wrong route. That matter-of-fact prose I mentioned earlier could never directly manifest on the screen, but Garland, bless him, tries his damnedest. What came across as innocence in the book translates to coldness and a kind of dull, grey superficiality on the screen.

As a result, some very well-intentioned and capable performers flounder before our eyes. Save Mulligan’s near-constant sad, tilted smirk and Knightley’s frequently insane toothy grin, all three are surprisingly affecting. Or at least they would be if they weren’t lumbered with overly direct dialogue, a pace that never flows, and some of the most ridiculous wigs and outfits this side of Mamma Mia! Mulligan in particular is becoming one of the most enigmatic presences on cinema screens, with her pixie face concealing a gravelly, Shakespearean voice. But her Kathy isn’t the limited childlike wonder of the book.

To be fair, any sort of comparison with Ishiguro’s prose is unreasonable. I can only think of a few films which have affected me so deeply. Still, I’m a firm believer that the best book-to-film adaptations leave the feeling of the book behind and concentrate on telling a story on screen well – even if it’s a story that differs considerably from that of the book, if only in the telling. Examples: Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement; Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love. Romanek’s proved himself to be quite a talent with his earlier One Hour Photo, but he and Garland would’ve done themselves a favour by watching those three films as a kind of Adaptations 101.

I am, of course, biased, and would love to hear from anyone who hasn’t read the book. A follower on Twitter, @PapushiSun, hasn’t: “I haven’t watched another film that made me so angry in a long time. People don’t behave like that, I kept thinking.” It didn’t stir the same frustration in me, but I have to agree that the motivation for much of the characters’ behaviour was unclear, or – worse – when it was revealed, I just didn’t really care.

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