Highly anticipated ‘Snowman’ turns out to be mostly slush

Looking at the billboard posters for “The Snowman” (2017, Tomas Alfredson), I had the feeling that if I paid close attention while watching the movie, I might see a red flag or perhaps spot a clue that the police miss in a complex and carefully constructed story of a serial killer on the loose.

And since it’s set in Norway (haunting snowscapes, frozen lakes and austere mountains abound), I figured this tipoff to patient viewers would likely be a visual one – the Scandinavians being a tight-lipped crowd for the most part.

But about 45 minutes into this film, in which Michael Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole, I realized that hanging in there was not going to pay off – that this was a complex and sloppily constructed story that was probably going to leave me feeling disappointed and frustrated.

Despite Alfredson’s success in 2011 with the multilayered “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he seems out of his depth and overwhelmed with “The Snowman.” The narrative is confusing, the flashbacks don’t connect well with the present, the characterizations are haphazard. A case in point: Early on, we see Harry lying on a park bench shivering. There’s no explanation and the rest of the time he seems calm, measured, decisive and compassionate. Eventually, we learn he is an alcoholic. Oh, OK.

Similarly, his colleague Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), despite showing ingenuity and fierce determination, in the end, must resort to time-worn feminine wiles to land her suspect. Good thing she’s gorgeous!

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character doesn’t have a last name but at least she’s elegantly dressed. Whatever.

Most vacant of all: Chloë Sevigny’s two characters (she plays twins) – one of whom is a dour-faced chicken slaughterer. ’Nuff said.

Considering, too, that the film was based on Jo Nesbø’s best-selling series of novels, there was reason to hope for a well made, intelligent, engrossing movie. Maybe there were too many screenwriters? (Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini lead the list.)

Or maybe this would have been better off as a TV series, where the serpentine storylines could play out and the characters could have more time to develop. Unfortunately, “The Snowman” we ended up with is mostly slush.

“The Snowman” opened Oct. 19 in Los Angeles and is now on general release.

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McQueen paints harrowing portrait of addiction in ‘Shame’

Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender

“Shame” by London-born writer/director Steve McQueen is a searing study of a man, both buttoned-up and out of control, obsessively seeking oblivion and teetering on the edge of disaster. A sex addict perpetually on the outside looking in, he lives solely for his next physical encounter.

On the surface, the laconic, hauntingly good-looking Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seems very much together. His colleagues like and respect him, he lives in a stylish Manhattan apartment, women are easily drawn to him.

His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling singer, is not faring as well and lands on his doorstep because she has nowhere else to live. Starting with Brandon finding Sissy in his shower, the two begin a tense co-existence. Brandon attempts to keep his porn, rooftop trysts and hotel hookups private, but we sense Sissy is completely up to speed on his compulsion; she tries half-heartedly to curb her own partying and sleeping around.

Whereas Brandon strips any feeling from his encounters (the one exception is a colleague he courts, the ethereally pretty and warm-hearted Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie), Sissy is the opposite, fiercely clinging to whoever will buy her champagne and share her bed for a night. Sissy’s mounting desperation eventually forces Brandon to confront his self-destructive compulsion.

With muted emotion and spare dialogue, McQueen, who wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan, implies more than he tells but we know with certainty that Brandon and Sissy’s history is rooted in pain and deep dysfunction. The scene in which Brandon and his boss (James Badge Dale) come to hear Sissy sing at a club – she performs a wrenchingly sad version of “New York, New York” – flawlessly conveys their baggage and buried guilt.

McQueen, an acclaimed artist and director of 2008’s prize-winning “Hunger,” which also starred Fassbender, heightens the mood of numb despair by using long takes, cool tones and stark lighting. Toward the end, in bed with two women, Brandon’s anguished face tinged with yellow brings to mind a tortured figure in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, expunging any hint of sexiness or erotic allure.

Nicole Beharie and Michael Fassbender

Noirish shots of Brandon prowling New York streets at night reveal the energy he expends to shroud his life in secrecy and keep his emotions at bay.

There are many graphically raw scenes that earned the film a NC-17 rating and many are harrowing to watch. Harrowing, to be sure, but also moving – Mulligan and Fassbender are marvelously compelling in these roles that let them express uncommon depth and a mighty struggle. Beharie and Dale strike us as real people as opposed to stock types, yet they neatly suggest the general pattern of Brandon and Sissy’s superficial relationships.

To some extent, “Shame” follows in the tradition of “The Lost Weekend” and “The Man with the Golden Arm,” as well as “Last Tango in Paris,” but McQueen’s work seems broader, more resonant in our instant-gratification, must-have-it-now culture. Says Fassbender, “It speaks to this constant drive we have for satisfaction and highs, one that is followed by feelings of shame and self-loathing.”

“Shame” also speaks, in tough language, to vulnerability, damage, connection and love.

Tilda Swinton plays a beaten-down mother.

Also opening today (in a limited release) and very highly recommended: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lynne Ramsay, a thriller in which neo noir meets New Age parenting. We witness, in jagged pieces that jump back and forth in time, the unthinkably brutal rupture of a dysfunctional but not entirely unhappy family.

Tilda Swinton plays a mother struggling to love her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) who comes into the world seething with anger. John C. Reilly plays her denial-prone husband. Though the script isn’t fully there and I just couldn’t buy Swinton and Reilly as a couple, this is nonetheless tour de force direction from Ramsay. I hope her vision and style are recognized during awards season.

Rich with visual metaphor, bold use of color and captivating performances, this is destined to be a neo-noir classic.

Emily Browning

In writer/director Julia Leigh’s erotic reworking of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” we meet Lucy (Emily Browning), a perverse college student using her stunning looks to make a living in the sex industry.

Though I admired Browning’s performance, the movie was disappointingly sluggish and dull.

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Holiday movie magic: A brand-new black and white, the blonde bombshell, a bad cop, Cronenberg and Scorsese

It’s that time again … Oscar season is here. Starting Wednesday, Nov. 23., there is much to see at the movies; these films surely will appeal to noir fans. (Check your local listings for details.) Enjoy!

‘The Artist’

Bérénice Bejo

“The Artist,” set in 1927 Hollywood, is writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ visually resplendent ode to the vivacious beauty of silent cinema. Debonair heartthrob and household name George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) coasts from movie to movie and lives in high style – posh home, trophy wife (Penelope Ann Miller), loyal valet (James Cromwell) and faithful companion, a Jack Russell terrier.

Ambitious actress and dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) has talent, looks and perfect timing – the introduction of sound is reshaping the way films are made. She’s drawn to George but, at first, he doesn’t pay her much attention beyond an admiring glance. George’s idyllic world starts to collapse when he sees that his style does not work with the latest and greatest technical advance, talkies. Can he find a way to keep up with the times and salvage his career?

The story, though a bit of a stretch, is delightful. The era is fastidiously recreated and Hazanavicius draws fine work from his cast. Dujardin neatly balances pomposity with humility and Bejo dazzles as Peppy. Her high energy nearly sparks off the screen and it’s a joy to watch her marvelously expressive face. And John Goodman is spot on as blustery producer Al Zimmer. The film has won several awards from festivals, including best actor for Dujardin at Cannes.

“The Artist” is a tender-hearted, near-perfect pastiche of a classic art form.

‘My Week with Marilyn’

Kenneth Branagh

Manipulative, desperate, vulnerable. Funny, gifted, magical. Never dumb. In “My Week with Marilyn,” Simon Curtis’ portrait of ’50s screen icon Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), we see her multiple sides and many problems through the prism of chaste voyeurism and our jaded, tell-all modernity.

“They like to keep her doped up, she’s easier to control. They’re terrified their cash cow will slip away,” says one observer, during the shoot, in England, of 1957’s “The Prince and the Show Girl.” Her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) takes issue with her erratic behavior, but he also envies her raw, intuitive talent.

Adrian Hodges wrote the screenplay, based on “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me,” a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark was an assistant director on the film and the son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (of “Civilisation” fame). Dame Judi Dench plays actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Dougray Scott plays Arthur Miller.

Curtis creates a beguiling visual confection with tour-de-force Oscar-caliber performances.

‘Rampart’
In “Rampart,” directed by Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt cop in early 1990s Los Angeles. Moverman wrote the screenplay with James Ellroy. Also stars Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Anne Heche and Ice Cube.
Note: “Rampart” is out for one week only in Los Angeles and New York; wider release hits in January 2012. We at FNB are looking forward to seeing it!

‘A Dangerous Method’

David Cronenberg speaks at a press conference last week.

David Cronenberg brings his consummate eye to a remarkable historical drama in “A Dangerous Method.” Flawlessly photographed, the story is rendered with intelligence, austerity and precision. Though the chilly, almost clinical, tone undermines the film’s emotional buildup, it’s nevertheless a gripping saga.

Under Cronenberg’s lens is the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in the pioneering days of psychoanalysis when ethical boundaries had yet to be drawn. Jung’s intent on helping a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who enters his clinic flailing, wild and barely able to speak.

Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina is emotionally shattered as an adult. She makes rapid progress with Jung and the two begin an illicit, intimate relationship. Eventually Sabine decides to become an analyst and in the course of her study challenges some of Freud’s work.

Vincent Cassel plays psychiatrist Otto Gross; Canadian newcomer Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s wife. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay from his play “The Talking Cure,” which was based on the book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr.

“We’ve all been influenced by Freud whether we know it or not,” said Cronenberg at a press conference last week in Beverly Hills. Cronenberg added that though Freud fell out of favor, his professional stature has recovered lost ground in the last 15 years. “Some of his theories have been absolutely confirmed.”

He pointed out that despite his stern and uptight reputation, Freud was in fact “handsome, charming, witty and funny.” That called for “slightly oblique, non-traditional casting” so Cronenberg said he talked Mortensen into the part. This is their third collaboration, following “History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”

Of Knightley’s portrayal of Sabine, Cronenberg said, “I’ve always thought she was an underrated actress. … It’s a really beautiful performance.”

‘Hugo’

From a champion of film noir and master neo-noir director Martin Scorsese comes “Hugo,” an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” It is one of Scorsese’s most accomplished productions ever (stunning 3D color cinematography; gorgeous production design by Dante Ferretti) and one of the year’s very best films.

Georges Méliès

In 1930s Paris, a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a railway station and keeps all the clocks running. He clashes with an over-zealous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), flirts with a pretty young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and meets her family, including the great but forgotten filmmaker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

The movie is Scorsese’s Valentine to the cinema, and few more sumptuous love-notes have been made. Filled with clips from silent classics, including Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon,” this is a jewel no genuine movie lover should pass by.

“Hugo” review by Michael Wilmington

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Dark dramas shine at Chicago International Film Festival

Dark domestic dramas led the fine slate of high-style movies at the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which boasted a lineup of nearly 200 titles.

In “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (UK) by Lynne Ramsay, neo noir meets New Age parenting in a haunting thriller. We witness, in jagged pieces that jump back and forth in time, the unthinkably brutal rupture of a dysfunctional but not entirely unhappy family.

Creating buzz at many fests, Tilda Swinton will doubtless continue to earn acclaim for her wrenching portrait of a mother struggling to love her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) who comes into the world seething with anger. Chicago-born John C. Reilly plays her denial-prone husband. Rich with visual metaphor and captivating performances (though the script is not fully there), this is destined to be a neo-noir classic. (“We Need to Talk About Kevin” does not release in the US until February.)

Samuli Niittymaki

I doubt Finnish director Zaida Bergroth had “Mildred Pierce” in mind when she made “The Good Son,” which won the top prize in the new directors competition. But I kept thinking of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 classic starring Joan Crawford as a flawed single mother of two daughters, the elder of whom is a bit of a snake, as I watched Elina Knihtila portray Leila, a flawed single mother of two sons, the elder of whom (Samuli Niittymaki as Illmari), is a bit of a psycho.

Eero Aho plays Leila’s new love interest, a kindly writer named Aimo. Anna Paavilainen is excellent as Illmari’s girlfriend as is Eetu Julin as Unto, the younger brother. Arresting images, subtle acting, nicely paced.

Arguably, “A Dangerous Method” (Germany/Canada) by David Cronenberg could be classified as a domestic drama, dealing as it does with the long-term adulterous relationship between renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and a patient-turned-student-of-psychoanalysis Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud; Sarah Gadon is Jung’s wife. This finely crafted film is already generating Oscar buzz.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” (US) is the kind of film that leaves you reeling, then lodges in your mind for days. Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Ashley and Mary Kate) stars as a young woman who escapes from an evil cult and struggles to reconnect with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and her new brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Writer/director Sean Durkin’s fragmented narrative swerves from past to present; the tension mounts masterfully to a claustrophobic level. Thoroughly mesmerizing, but as much as I admired Olsen’s presence and vulnerability (she may be an Oscar contender), I felt no sympathy for her character. John Hawkes (of “Winter’s Bone”) is unforgettable as the warped cult leader.

English actor Dexter Fletcher makes an impressive directorial debut with “Wild Bill.” Though the story is essentially rooted in cliché, the fresh writing and powerful acting inject vitality into this tale of an ex-con (Charlie Creed-Miles) reconnecting with his young sons (Will Poulter and Sammy Williams) in London’s East End.

A desire for a father-daughter reunion drives the ex-con (Mark Pellegrino) in “Joint Body” by Brian Jun. But he gets sidetracked when he meets a stripper (Alicia Witt) in a seedy residential motel in downstate Illinois and the two end up on the run. (The term joint body refers to a convict who works out and walks the walk with confidence.)

Too melodramatic to be a real thriller, Thierry Klifa’s “His Mother’s Eyes/Les Yeux de Sa Mère,” (France) about a writer’s plan to ingratiate himself into a fractured family, is still intelligent, engrossing and features an easy-on-the-eyes cast, which includes ever-lovely Catherine Deneuve, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Géraldine Pailhas and Jean-Baptiste Lafarge.

And though definitely not a noir, the festival’s grand-prize winner, “Le Havre” (Finland/France) by Aki Kaurismaki, recounts the forming of a temporary, makeshift family. A working class French man (André Wilms) befriends and protects an African boy (Blondin Miguel) who lands illegally in Le Havre on the way to reuniting with his mother in London. Lit and composed like an Old Master painting, Kaurismaki’s film brims with humanity and humor.

Tomorrow: More about movies at the festival

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