February 9, 2012 6:18 pm

In the final analysis, it’s a Freudian slip-up

This week’s films reviewed: David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, ‘The Muppets’, ‘A Woman in Black’, ‘The Vow’ and ‘Girl Model’

Repression, Freud told us, is a dangerous thing. It can even attack – apparently – late-career moviemakers. A Dangerous Method, chronicling the rivalry between Freud and Jung in the dawn of psychoanalysis, is a startling case. It is directed by David Cronenberg as if he has shut his former self in a closet. Demons, contagions, body horror? Scanners, The Brood, Videodrome? Remember? This new film is stiff, genteel and well-behaved, like a radio drama with pictures.

The pictures are mostly of two incongruously cast cine-hunks, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, impersonating Carl and Sigmund, while suffocating by slow degrees in their turn-of-century formal wear and delivering their day’s consignments of biopic dialogue.

Christopher Hampton’s source play The Talking Cure (based on John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method) may well have succeeded on stage. His screenplay is lost in the reality check that is cinema: that brutal biosphere for detecting and isolating artifice, at least of the inert variety. Little breathes here, little convinces. “So you might be the first doctor to try this out?” the Switzerland-based Jung is asked by his spouse (evidently not keeping up with events in Vienna) as he sets out to cure Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein, a hysteria-afflicted aspiring doctor. Knightley, with brief promise, acts up, grimaces, tears off her clothes and goes for her character’s jugular. She is the bright spot in the darkness. Then the costumed undead close in around her.

Nothing that follows vanquishes the corseted period-movie feel, neither the sadomasochism-spiced Jung-Sabina affair nor the brief eruption of Vincent Cassel’s Otto Gross, another doctor/patient loudhailing the doctrine of self-liberation. Is it time to call time on this kind of biographical movie, weighted with dialogue while neutered by respectfulness, even amid the “daring” dance of its themes? When you start to feel nostalgic for the late Ken Russell, you know something is wrong . . . 

2 stars

Nostalgia is plentiful this week. There are glorious early moments in The Muppets. A beaming, cheesy, spectacular song-and-dance number delivered by human stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams; the conceit, presented without a wink or blink, that Segel’s brother, joining the lovers on their Muppets-seeking trip to Hollywood, is himself a puppet; the self-reflexive cinema jokes as the trio’s idols are met and brought together (“May I suggest we pick up the rest of the Muppets using a montage?”). Then comes the gang: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, the lot.

If only it were all Parnassus regained. The Muppets were special: they were the TV puppets that spread puppetry’s appeal beyond the world of undersized kids and overgrown geeks. Yet something is a little sad too in this film: a sadness consciously mined in the dark-hued early Hollywood scenes. The decaying Muppet theme tour (eerily recalling the abandoned fun park of Spirited Away), the dilapidated Muppet museum being bought up by wicked oil speculator Chris Cooper . . . 

Unfortunately the pang of loss – the “you can’t go back again” – is reflected in the film’s own inability go back again. After a meditative midsection it tries to re-establish cuteness and comic zeal. But this Kermit never quite returns to innocent life after we find him in his doomy chateau with the wrought-iron frog outline in the gate (a batrachian Kane). Miss Piggy, who has been to Paris and become a Franglais Anna Wintour, Streepishly editing French Vogue, has passed to higher spheres: her European elevation, our mythomanic recall. And as the famous Muppet intro-song strikes up in the “Let’s put on a show” climax, we think “Oh dear, that was yesterday. We loved it, but it’s too late. Best not to have disturbed the living, loving museum in our heads.”

3 stars

Next up in Nostalgia Week is Hammer Films. In tackling Susan Hill’s ghost novel The Woman in Black, Simon Oakes, re-founder of the august British horror film outfit, says the intention was to combine a gothic story with a “modern sensibility”. Hmmm. Meaning exactly what? Meaning giving star Daniel Harry Potter Radcliffe, playing the lawyer turned ghost-hunter, a stubble beard and anxiety-darkened eyes, depriving him of schoolpals and hoping for the best?

The story has worked in performance before. As a stage play it has run and run. As a movie it plods and plods. The ravens caw; the villagers do their “Aaarh, you can’t go there” (but somehow without the Hammer heart or the Hill incisiveness). The mansion is gloomier than Kermit’s. A story that had prodigious legs on page and stage – mountaineer-worthy legs – barely gets to base camp here, let alone to those giddying heights where we will scream at anything, including the black-garbed ghost lady dollying towards us in the attic.

2 stars

The Vow, starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum as star-crossed lovers, starts like a rom-com but turns into what a press-show colleague called a rom-tradge. (The hour brings forth the neologism.) The film is based, as so often when cinema tugs at your hankie, on a true story.

Those are always the ones you least believe. Not because it couldn’t happen that a car crash causes memory loss in a girl (McAdams), who then has to be re-wooed by her mate (Tatum) to prove they were and are a married couple; more because, by the time stardust and Hollywoodism have been sprinkled over the cake, it looks the same as every other cake in the window. Rom-tradge? That and rom-trudge: winsomely scripted, longwinded and squandering talent in small roles (Sam Neill, Jessica Lange). Oh and by the way, never mind “true stories”. Wasn’t the grandparent of this particular tearduct-activator Random Harvest? Greer Garson; Ronald Colman; love and amnesia; 1942? Don’t try to remember, you are too young.

2 stars

Girl Model, a documentary by David Redmon and A. Sabin, is the human side of a nation busy, at present, showing us its inhuman side. Russia the intransigent; Russia the legitimiser of state carnage in the Middle East. Yet in Novosibirsk and other towns on the Trans-Siberian rail line, the banal yet luminous dramas of hope and disappointment play out, proving – again – that life is the same everywhere in the world, once you dig below the perma-crust of nationalistic self-assertion and position-striking.

Girls as young as 13-year-old Nadya are filled with dreams of money and success by world-travelling model agent Ashley and air-freighted to Japan to get rich. For some it works, for others not: they get poor and are air-freighted back, in debt to their paymasters. Meanwhile – the film’s most disturbing oddity – Ashley laments to the camera the cruelty of it all while carrying on with her job. Nadya herself is a touching presence: the face of innocence, her eyes big with the wonder of hope, then becoming smaller, warier, finally moister as truth usurps dream.

3 stars

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