Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor dips his toes in the water while Emily Blunt tries to warn him about the sharks.

(2011) Romance (CBS) Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked, Tom Mison, Rachael Stirling, Catharine Steadman, Conleth Hill, Hugh Simon, Tom Beard, Jill Baker, Waleed Akhtar, Peter Wight, Nayef Rashed, Clive Wood. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

There are things that we use for metaphors for the unlikely; screen doors on submarines, Hell freezing over and so on. But what could be more unlikely in real life than going salmon fishing, a sport for northern climates, in the middle of a desert?

Well, nothing if you’re a fisheries specialist and that’s just what Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor) is. He works for the British Environmental Agency (their fishing and aquaculture department, to be exact) and is called Dr. Jones so often that you half-expect an archaeologist in a fedora carrying a whip to tear around the corner and punch out a Nazi.

Then you meet Dr. Jones and realize that he’s a pretty milquetoast kind of guy. He is married to the shrill but caring Mary (Stirling) who is more and more putting her career ahead of her marriage. He designs famous flies for fly fishermen and talks to the Koi in his pond in the back of his Chelsea home. So when he gets the e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Tolbert (Blunt) who works at a large English financial company that she has a client interested in a project that would bring salmon fishing to the Yemen, he responds with incredulity and essentially, some condescending rudeness.

But the times they are a’changin’. A muck-up in Afghanistan which resulted in British troops destroying a mosque gets their Press Secretary (and spin doctor) Patricia Maxwell (Scott Thomas) scrambling to find a feel-good story in the Mideast puts the spotlight on this potential project. Dr. Jones’ somewhat harried boss Bernard Sugden (Hill) nudges the reluctant Doctor to meet with Harriet and while the meeting is inauspicious, Dr. Jones is soon made to understand that this project needs to happen. Forthwith.

He comes up with a plan that’s theoretically possible and is taken to meet Harriet’s client, Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) who turns out to be very different than the pragmatic Dr. Jones expected. As does Harriet who as the project continues gets closer to Dr. Jones. There are obstacles of course; he’s married and she’s engaged to a Captain in the British Army (Mison) but when Mison goes missing and Mary leaves for an extended business trip to Geneva things get a little bit complicated.

Some movies just grab you with the amount of heart they show at their center and this is certainly one of those. Halstrom has a lot of those on his resume – The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News and Chocolat among them. This is certainly the sort of movie that would work for those who love those other films.

Part of the reason the film works is that this is so well-cast. Blunt and McGregor are both very appealing leads and the chemistry between them is genuine. McGregor gets to be full-on Scottish and that works nicely for the character. He is a bit of a prig but not so much that you get irritated. He is actually quite charming in his own way, although his sense of humor is a bit lacking.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of the go-to women for romance movies. She’s smart and beautiful and sweet, all characteristics that serve her character well. She’s also a hell of an actress, as she proves during the scenes where she must deal with her boyfriend’s situation. There is some real pathos there and she doesn’t overplay it, making her grief real and accessible.

Kristin Scott Thomas is also an adept actress, able to do comedy, mystery, drama, in fact whatever is asked of her. She is mostly comic relief here (some of the film’s funniest moments come during IM conversations between her and the prime minister) and she gives the role just enough stiff upper lip in order to make the character a bit more funny.

The ending is a bit too smarmy and a bit too pat. I always have trouble with people who are in established relationships getting out of them to be with the “right one” even though you’re rooting for them to. It always makes me wonder how (in this case) Mary and Robert (Harriet’s Army boy) are feeling, even though the movie tells you it’s pretty much rotten. I’m not a big fan of two people to be miserable so two people have a shot at a different relationship (and generally those sorts of relationships don’t work in real life anyway – too much guilt).

Then again, I’m being a bit of a pragmatist here and the movie really isn’t meant for that sort of thinking. It’s meant to be enjoyed, experienced with your heart more than with your head. It’s not sugary sweet and yet it makes you feel enveloped with a warm blanket, sipping a nice hot cup of chocolate. This is a hug-from-your-grandmother kind of movie, the kind that makes you feel better coming out than you did going in. You can’t give a much better recommendation than that.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet and full of heart. Not so quirky that it gets irritating. Blunt and McGregor make attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit too Hollywood for me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence, a smattering of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Yemen-set portion of the movie was filmed in Morocco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FISH LOVERS: You will learn more about salmon and their breeding habits than perhaps you ever wanted to know.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Dog Soldiers

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Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess