Monday, December 26, 2011

Shame - Theatrical Review


Release Date: December 2, 2011

Art house films are a strange breed. They often feature outstanding performances by talented actors but never (or very rarely) seem to put much emphasis on story. Their examination of the human condition is never faltering and usually extremely enlightening. Shame is what I consider a quintessential art house film, what it lacks in story or plot it more than makes up for with two actors going for broke.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Landmark 12 West L.A.
Time: 2:10 pm December 9, 2011
Projector Type: Film 2D
Film Rating: NC-17
Film Runtime: 1 hr 39 min
Studio: Fox Searchlight

Loves: Carey Mulligan
Likes: Michael Fassbender, intimate character studies
Neutral: Lack of any significant story in my character based films
Hates: That NC-17 films still don't get wide releases
Nudity: This movie has got a ton of it

I recently panned the film The Descendants for being overly generic with its story contrivances. It featured adequate performances from actors that were capable of so much more and offered nothing new to the tired family drama formula. But that movie wasn't interested in its characters or the actors portraying them, at least not as much as it was interested in its painfully cliched story. Shame is in many ways the complete opposite of that film and approaches its subject in a much more straightforward manner which I appreciated. It doesn't try to provide us with some kind of rewarding life lesson from its narrative. It isn't interested in trying to manipulate us into its web of perversions and broken souls. In probably one of this years most comprehensive character studies, it just simply invites us to follow the life of a man and be witness to his morale and mental collapse into a world of obsessive self destruction.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a man with a very uncomplicated life on the surface. He is single, lives by himself, has a rewarding but hollow career and has a stable of work buddies he hits the town with to scope out the local bars for able and willing women who aren't interested in long fulfilling relationships. He has an obsession though, an obsession with sex. While most (if not all) men of the world could be labeled the exact same way, it is a little different for Brandon. His obsession is fueled by more than just a strong sex drive, he has a tainted past that has molded him into the man he is now. He has learned to deal with it though and lives a mostly normal life...that is until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes calling one night and brings out those suppressed feelings into the open once again which eventually leads him down a self destructive path.

Michael Fassbender delivers a fascinating performance.

Director Steve McQueen has crafted a very fine film here. It is often times beautiful to look at, has an appropriately haunting atmosphere to it and features two of this years best performances by both a male and female lead actor. But it is also a film with one singular purpose in mind which is to showcase the immense talent of its star, Michael Fassbender. I was first introduced to the man in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and became a fan instantly. As much as I enjoyed his performance in that film though it was still a very small part which caused me to remain optimistically cautious about what the future would hold for him. Then in last summers X-Men First Class he proved that without a doubt he was an actor to keep an eye on and now with Shame the circle is complete. Michael Fassbender has proven he has what it takes to be the leading man and IS the main reason to see Shame.

Michael Fassbender is simply fascinating to watch as the lonely, sex crazed Brandon. He is one of those few gifted actors who can tell you his whole life story with a simple look or gesture. Early on in the film there is a very long and drawn out scene on a subway where he lays his lingering gaze upon this moderately attractive woman sitting across from him. There is no dialog between the two but they share glances that tell you everything you need to know. As the scene progressed I found myself getting hopelessly wrapped up in the moment more and more. We see them go from interest, to arousal and eventually guilt...well, at least the woman looked guilty anyway. It was a captivating scene to say the least .

Brandon isn't shy when it comes to his desires.

That is the beauty of Fassbender's performance. Those little nuances, a slightly raised eyebrow, wandering eyes and a steel gaze that exudes confidence.  But he adds so much more to his character than just the sex crazed man we are introduced to, during that moment on the train there is an ever present sense of pain hidden beneath that cold and calculating exterior of his. As easy as it seems for him to seduce just about any woman he wants he is never truly satisfied with just one conquest and is forced to find ulterior methods in which to satisfy his ever growing lustful tendencies. It is during some of the films more provocative moments where Fassbender's acting talents are put to the test as is the audiences willingness to watch a man spiral down a never ending tunnel of despair through countless depraved sexual encounters. Although, these complications with his seeded past and his obsessive sex drive don't reveal themselves fully until his sister Sissy comes into the picture though.

I have heard a lot of press about Carey Mulligan's "revealing" turn as a down and out lounge singer but just focusing on her "assets" is doing her a great disservice. If you are one of those people who are only interesting in seeing the film for her much publicized bosom then you are seeing it for the wrong reason. While I can't say she gives quite as gut wrenching a performance as Fassbender, she is no less captivating to watch every moment she is on screen. And although she isn't given nearly as much screen time as Fassbender (as I said, this is his movie), I do believe this to be her first real departure from the stable of "safe" roles she has done in the past and she nails it. She isn't just asked to bare her body, but also her soul and on more than one occasion she does in fact upstage Fassbender. She is also responsible for one of the most hypnotic musical ballads I have seen in a film all year with her unplugged rendition of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York", which is punctuated by a very long and intimate close up during her performance.

Hands down one of the most magical film moments of the year.

With both lead actors bringing their A game it comes as a slight let down then that there isn't much of a movie there to back them up. What story there is isn't very clear or engaging unfortunately. The film does a fair job at showing us what kind of person Brandon is by exploring his overt sexual lifestyle but it never feels the need to actually explore what led him to becoming who he is. This wouldn't be so much a problem if there weren't so many damn hints thrown around about some sort of childhood trauma that both he and Sissy were subject to. The closest we ever get to any sort of explanation about what caused the two of them to be so screwed up is one single line of dialog stating that neither of them are bad people, they just come from a bad place. If you are like me then that will just lead you to all sorts of speculation as to what happened to them. Unfortunately you will have to find peace with the fact that speculation is all you will ever have.

Normally that would be a seed that is planted which would later blossom into some sort of revelation about their history. Instead it is just a message left as a voicemail and is kind of thrown away. It got kind of frustrating after a while knowing that both Brandon and Sissy were dealing with demons from their past and how the movie never felt the need to expand upon that. At what is essentially the peak of the drama built up between the brother and sister duo they have an extremely powerful conversation about their relationship which gets a bit heated and leads into probably the best scene in the film. That conversation would have had ten times the impact though if we actually knew what it was that has scarred them like this. By this point we know Brandon is heading down a path of self destruction and that Sissy can't live without her brother but we never truly understand what is wrong with them beyond their basic addictions to sex and a very unruly lifestyle.

Brandon doesn't take too kindly to his friends hitting on his sister.

That is the fatal flaw of the film for me. It just doesn't give us enough to go on for us to ever really get invested in either Brandon or Sissy's lives. If it were not for the superb performances by Fassbender and Mulligan I could see myself becoming very bored with the film. It isn't a very showy movie either, there are some really great shots of the city and some one take shots that give it a very distinct visual style but you can only see a person go jogging down the street for so long before you start to wonder how much longer it is going to continue. Seriously, aside from  the amazing scene with Mulligan singing and the confrontation between the brother and sister, I yearned for some quicker cuts. Don't get me wrong though, overall I found the film to be a joy to look just overstayed its welcome one too many times for scenes that would have benefited greatly with some well placed edits.

Since so much has been made about the sexual content in the film I suppose I should devote some of my space for that as well. Shame is rated NC-17 which can be seen in multiple lights. First and foremost is that it is an audacious film that pushes the boundaries of its subject matter. Second is that the film will most likely never see the light of day at your local multiplex since most major theater chains tend to shy away from the dreaded rating (thanks for nothing Showgirls). Third is that there is going to be some kind of sexual content and/or nudity that goes well beyond the norm. It is important to note that just because a film has that NC-17 rating attached to it doesn't mean it is necessarily a good film by default. This is a common misconception, sort of like the idea that since a movie is considered "independent" then that automatically means it is going to be a heartfelt experience with some great underrated actors and a meaningful story. Fortunately Shame is one of the few to carry such a rating that actually warrants all the positive preconceived notions that come with it.

Brandon and Sissy have a somewhat unnerving closeness with one another.

Since the entire film is about Brandon and his insatiable sexual desires it makes sense that we see him naked...a lot...all the time in fact. Never before in the history of (legitimate) film have I ever been presented with the male sexual organ in the first half of the film as often as I was with Shame. Now I tend to think of myself as a very opened minded individual when it comes to seeing male genitalia in my movies (I don't do the usual heterosexual thing such as get instantly disgusted) but even my limits were tested here. How much do we see exactly? Well, let me put it to you this way, I became WAY too comfortable seeing Michael Fassbender trouncing around his apartment displaying his member in all its glory. As for Carey Mulligan's big reveal...yeah, she leaves almost nothing to the imagination but quite honestly (and this isn't meant to lessen what she did) it really felt unnecessary. Her big scene not only lasted a mere minute at most (from one angle only mind you) but there was also no reason for her to be naked in the scene she was in. Sure, she was coming out of the shower but did we really need to see her naked? I suppose the same argument can be made about Fassbender's numerous moments without clothing but it still felt as though the director (or someone) wanted them to strip down for the camera just for the sake of it at times. If you really wanted to rationalize it though you could say that their open sexuality towards one another was represented by their unflinching willingness to not hide ANYTHING from each other but it still became a bit much at times.

It works though, just like most of everything in the film works. If I had to compare this movie to another film that focused solely on its actors it would have to be Leaving Las Vegas, a film that was similarly praising for the acting talents of its two stars but panned for a story that went nowhere. While the two aren't directly relatable they do share quite a bit in common. Both films are light on story, feature a prominent male character that is going down a self destructive path as well as a lead female role performed by a woman who is looking to leave behind her more tame roles (Elisabeth Shue was seen more as a girl next door type up to that point) and I can see Fassbender not only earning the best actor nod but, just like Nicolas Cage, he could actually win it. There is one other commonality between the two I must mention though. Just like Leaving Las Vegas, I cannot recommend Shame to just anyone. It is one of those films you watch for the acting, the story is wholly forgettable (mainly because there really isn't one). But at the same time I have no problem recommending it JUST for the simple joy of watching two actors deliver powerful performances. Is it one of the best movies of the year? Unfortunately no it isn't. Is it one of the most well acting movies of the year? Yes without a doubt. So for anyone interested in seeing two of today's brightest new stars it is an essential viewing experience while everyone out there should at some point at least...




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