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Filth and Wisdom
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Pretender"
1 stars

Considering the number of musical personalities who have decided to see if their gifts behind a microphone translated behind a movie camera (a collection of talents that includes the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Barbra Streisand, Prince, John Mellencamp and Fred Durst), it isn’t that surprising to discover that Madonna has finally decided to follow in their footsteps and make her own long-awaited directorial debut. What is surprising, however, is that someone who has spent the last 25 years (and man, did writing those words make me feel old) clearly, cleanly and effortlessly communicating her artistic ideas to audiences through 4-minute pop songs, music videos and increasingly elaborate multi-media stage performances could then turn around and offer up something as confused and inexplicable as “Filth and Wisdom,” a film that frankly could have used a lot more of each. Even the most dedicated Madonna fanatics--the kind who have bought every CD, attended every concert and who even paid cash money to see “Shanghai Surprise” in a theater--will find it difficult to justify this mess on any artistic grounds and pop-culture scholars who have been examining her output over the years will be equally hard-pressed to explain the meaning or motivation behind what may be the single most disastrous film perpetrated by a musical icon since Paul McCartney made “Give My Regards to Broad Street.”

The story, such as it is, revolves around a trio of disparate London roommates battling poverty and struggling to make a go of their lives. A.K. (Eugene Hutz) is a Hungarian-born musician who channels his memories of an abusive childhood into a reasonably profitable sideline gig by physically and emotionally abusing anyone with enough money to pay for his services. Holly (Holly Weston) is a ballet dancer who, at the suggestion of A.K. (who is not-so-secretly in love with her) decides to take a stab at stripping in a local club to make extra money. Juliette (Vicky McClure), on the other hand, appears to have fled a life of privilege for unknown reason and is working as a pharmacy assistant where she spend most of her time pocketing various medications and attempting to raise enough money so that she can fulfill her dream of going to Africa in order to help the sick and starving children. Among those who find themselves falling into the orbits of these characters are Juliette’s boss (Inder Manocha), a hen-pecked husband with a not-so-secret crush on his employee, a fellow pole dancer (Francesca Kingdon) who attempts to teach Holly the intricacies of working the pole while advising her to be herself (a message that doesn’t quite seem to sink in since Holly’s breakthrough routine is a blatant imitation of the jailbait-era Britney Spears), a client of A.K.’s (Elliot Levey) whose secret sessions are discovered by his wife with surprising results, Juliette’s estranged sister (Claire Wilkie) who seems to have some of the answers regarding her sister’s traumas) and the trio’s downstairs neighbor (Richard E. Grant), a blind, gay retired author who is presumably meant to symbolize something, though it is anyone’s guess as to what it could possibly be.

This is certainly an eclectic group of characters and in the hands of a master filmmaker like Mike Leigh, I can see how their lives and relationships could be transformed into something that might be interesting to watch. However, having assembled these characters, Madonna and co-writer Dan Cadan have no idea of what they want to say about them. Instead, she merely throws them into a series of badly conceived and ineptly executed sequences that fail both as individual moments and as parts of a larger whole. The whole film has the jumbled and confused manner of the kind of film that you might normally find at the bottom of the reject pile of submissions for a lesser underground film festival and its grand philosophical statement--that one needs to embrace the murkiness of life in order to achieve true wisdom and clarity, would seem utterly laughable if it wasn‘t presented so sincerely. Of course, apologists for Madonna (and in regards to this film, that might consist solely of Madonna herself) may counter this by saying that she was not trying to make a conventional film by any means--when she premiered the film earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, she claimed in the program notes “I have always been inspired by the films of Goddard, Visconti, Passolini and Fellini and hope that I may one day make something that comes close to their genius.” Ignoring the fact that you would think that someone who claims such reverence would have known the proper spellings of “Godard” and “Pasolini,” what she seems to forget is that the best works from those filmmakers managed to combine avant-garde moments with reasonably coherent storylines and when they did eventually begin to abandon conventional narratives for newer and odder pastures, they had earned the right to do so after developing and perfecting their craft for years. By comparison, Madonna’s work as a director is incredibly haphazard--she has no sense of pacing or timing and even the sexually tinged material, the very thing that you might assume that comes off as flat and unexciting--and despite her lofty claims to the contrary, the only difference between this particular project and a student film destined to be given a grade of “incomplete” is that this one had enough money behind it to afford the full licensing rights to get top songs like “Erotica” and “Baby One More Time” on the soundtrack. It seems that at some point, even she must have realized that she didn’t quite know what she was doing because for long stretches of time, she relies on that laziest of storytelling devices--a musical montage that uses songs to help convey the emotions that she was apparently unable to evoke on her own.

“Filth and Wisdom” does have a couple of minor saving graces--an occasionally amusing bit of crackpot dialogue here, the attractive presence of Holly Weston there and the energetic music from the band Gogol Bordello (which Hutz is the lead singer of in real life) that is heard throughout is undeniably engaging (the band finally appears on screen to perform during the final scene and the moment is so infectious that you may wonder why Madonna didn’t simply scrap everything else and make a concert film featuring them instead)--but even they can’t begin to overcome all of its other failings to make it anything other than a disastrous vanity project that is only being released (barely) in the hopes of making a few bucks off of the hoopla surrounding Madonna’s current concert tour. Of course, Madonna has made some missteps in her career (remember that cover of “American Pie?”) and I am certain that she will easily and handily recover from what is certain to be the complete commercial and artistic rejection of “Filth and Wisdom.” Whether anyone who actually sees the film will be able to bounce back in a similar way remains to be seen.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17528&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/24/08 15:00:00
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USA
  17-Oct-2008
  DVD: 29-Sep-2009

UK
  N/A

Australia
  17-Oct-2008
  DVD: 29-Sep-2009


Directed by
  Madonna

Written by
  Madonna
  Dan Cadan

Cast
  Ade
  Olegar Fedoro
  Gogol Bordello
  Richard E. Grant
  Eugene Hutz
  Vicky Mclure
  Holly Weston



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