Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fears as chamber plays

"A Dangerous Method" is, from my vantage point, getting very unfairly maligned. If you love David Cronenberg, you should like this movie. If you don't, you don't like Cronenberg for the right reasons. Psychology has always been a very strong part of his films, especially when it comes to how we interpret sex and violence (and, of course, how those two come together). In a lot of ways, it makes perfect sense for him to step back into the discourse of psychology and investigate a rift in its theory and practice.

While perhaps a tad "stage-y" (it's adapted from a play by Christopher Hampton), Cronenberg finds some great cinematic ways to shoot scenes: deep focus and mirrors get shining moments. That, and the performances are simply wonderful. Keira Knightley is like a bat out of hell; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. She's over-the-top, wild, and unchained. It's rare to find a performance this fearless because so often we expect our actors to be quiet, reserved, realistic. Knightley is playing a hysterical nymphomaniac. She acts accordingly.

Equally impressive is Viggo Mortensen, whose in-depth research into Freud pays off. He's gruff, disarming, and completely holds your attention when he monologues about his field. Michael Fassbender continues is stratospheric rise as Jung. While most of the film is these three characters (with a brief appearance by Vincent Cassel) sitting and talking, or having masochistic sex, it's a wholly engrossing intellectual outing. It looks like a typical period drama, but plays like a wholly unique film.

There have been lots of reviews and comments I've seen dismissing the film as boring, verbose, and disjointed, but it's exactly the elliptical and lofty qualities in it that I find very attractive. Psychotherapy helps erect and maintain cultural conceptions of gender and sexual behavior, "A Dangerous Method" suggests, and its deepest rewards come from applying its discussions on-screen to what happens to the characters between the scenes.

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"Margin Call" is not a film on a lot of radars. It was made cheaply and quickly, but it rattles with a kind of precision and assurance rarely found in productions that cost five times as much. Recounting the first 24-hours of the 2008 Wall St. meltdown through the eyes of an up-all-night session at a single firm as they try to figure out how to survive the impending financial devastation, it's also largely a film of talking. Characters talk about money, about risks, about life, and dreams, and failures. As time goes on, they start to look sweaty and grimy, and it's very clear none of these characters are good, but few are bad. They make decisions that look awful, but they justify it as a no-way-out scenario.

Among the stellar ensemble, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Stanley Tucci stand tall for different reasons. They carry every moment they're in, and it's almost like watching an effortless master class at work. The writing is tight, and the acting sizzles.

The film is also remarkably well-shot. The offices are densely packaged, the lighting appropriately captures a kind of gorgeous blue nighttime hue, and yet there's lots of darkness surround this little world. It could easily work as a play, but the lighting in the close-ups and the editing around the boardroom tables make it come cinematically alive. Writer/director J.C. Chandor clearly has a passion for capturing human moments amidst a broader economic and political blanket (which is not to say the film is ideologically skewed--it is comfortably apolitical for much of the time), and finds plenty of ways to show off his considerable economic talents.

"Margin Call" is a quiet film, where only a raised voice accounts for the biggest action. Yet it feels so deeply realized, so impeccably staged -- in a word, tight.

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