Shame

Day after day, more of the same

Steve McQueen’s Shame is rated NC-17, which I suspect has contributed to its absence at the Academy Awards this year.  Additionally, Michael Fassbender, who has won several awards for his role as Brandon Sullivan – including the coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival – has been omitted (along with the much-deserving Michael Shannon) from the Best Actor category.  To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it seems the Academy is okay with Nazis (Christoph Waltz’s Supporting Actor win for Inglourious Basterds) but not with “masturbators.”

Surely we can attribute the rating to the film’s nudity, but I find myself wondering if a film involving a lead female character with as many nude scenes as Michael Fassbender receives here would have been a hard R.  It seems to me that society at large is comfortable with the female form, at least as far as objectification and (to a lesser extent) admiration, and in ways, it’s always been – just look at those ancient statues and age-old paintings in every art gallery and museum, created by the great sexists of every age, which depict women sitting and reading half-naked, combing their hair in the nude, flashing impossibly unrealistic breasts.  Men, though.  When there’s a naked man in the room, regardless of how much exercise he does, there’s always something that no one wants to talk about – those unsightly lumps of flesh swaying to and fro, that shrub of uncontrolled hair.  At some point, every man must pray that women never realize how ugly we are (and I mean this to be funny; it’s nothing compared with what women have had to deal with due to the expectations set forth by their artistic depictions throughout history).

Shame follows Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), a loner with a nice apartment and a cushy job that not only allows him to slink away without his coworkers noticing, but apparently provides him with enough disposable income to be able to throw a perfectly functional laptop into a plastic bag and leave it for the trash collectors.  By night, Brandon prowls Manhattan in search of anything – or anyone – who can satisfy his ardent sexual appetite.  I hesitate to call him a “sex addict,” however, which seems to be the buzz phrase for this movie, because that’s a medical term (which at the very least would require Brandon to identify a problem and seek help), and the story does not revolve around (nor even hint at) his desires to stop.

Instead, the film seeks to dig into Brandon’s lifestyle as a whole and see what stimuli will affect it, specifically after the appearance of Brandon’s wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  In this way, the film follows a standard Rat-in-the-cage model – that is to say, planting a character and a rat in a cage together and forcing them to square off, which can lead to a number of conclusions: 1) one kills the other; 2) they kill each other; 3) they become friends and leave the cage together; and so on.  In this film, we bear witness to several conflicts that sum up the film’s drama, the most prominent of which are Brandon vs. Sissy and Brandon vs. Himself.  Once Sissy comes to town, begging Brandon to let her stay in his apartment while she performs singing gigs in the city, she paints him into a corner.  All of a sudden, his apartment doesn’t seem so big.  In addition, his lecherous boss (James Badge Dale) takes a superficial interest in her, which introduces a subconflict: Brandon vs. his boss.  In his dealings with every person and situation forced upon him, we sense that the overarching interior conflict is Brandon vs. Intimacy, exemplified in two chief ways: Brandon finds pleasure and release in sexual encounters with strangers, as well as in his nightly perusal of internet porn, but avoids talking to his sister, who seeks a meaningful personal relationship with him, at all costs.  They are one another’s only family.  Later, when he attempts to sleep with a coworker who displays a real emotional connection with him, he’s unable to perform.

Michael Fassbender gives his bravest, most honest performance since McQueen’s Hunger and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, bearing not only his body, but the raw essence of his character.  Carey Mulligan bears a nearly equal burden in Sissy, breaking her self-described “staunch feminism” concerning nude scenes, and singing her heart out in a heart-squeezing scene involving a somber rendition of “New York, New York.”  The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is at the story’s core, and although we are never allowed to know what happened in their childhoods to create the dynamic they have now (they don’t budge at seeing each other naked, they have stark reactions to the other’s touch, Brandon cries when he hears her singing, etc), we push for them, hoping their respective imperfections can somehow mesh, somehow stop getting in the way of what could be the one healthy relationship either of them has.  What we do know is that they both have a history of self-abuse: Brandon’s sex life has become more function than fun, his penance for something we never learn about, and by his facial expressions during the final few orgasms he has in the film, we get the feeling that he’s no longer enjoying himself (has he ever?).  Sissy’s problems are more subtle.  As Brandon’s boss flirts with her, he touches her wrist and expresses surprise.  We don’t see what he sees, but Sissy’s reaction – “I was bored when I was younger” – gives away multitudes.  This scene, coupled with the fact that she was wearing a hospital bracelet when she showed up at Brandon’s place, brilliantly foreshadows what will be the story’s major turning point.

Perhaps the nature of Brandon’s addiction doesn’t matter.  An addiction to bodies and bodily functions rather than a drug, however, serves the underlying themes better: we get the sense that Brandon doesn’t even consider himself worthy of caring for another human being, and in the end, he is presented with two major decisions, giving him the chance to patch some things up, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledge that he himself had a problem in the first place.

You can count this film’s scenes on three hands.  The best ones are nearly endless, sticking with one shot (static, tracking, and otherwise) for minutes at a time, neither cheating the characters nor the audience of a single moment, a single change in facial expression, a single tear.  Signs on the subway often ask what we’re asking (or what we wish the characters would ask).  Shame is a film that shakes the basic film storytelling formula in that it does not prepare itself for any reasonable conclusion, and therefore does not reach much of one.  It does, however, present a conclusion, and if there was ever a movie in which the phrase “presentation is everything” applied, this was the one.

Shame (2011); written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Chronicle

The best Akira ripoff yet

chronicleJosh Trank’s Chronicle is a documentary-style sci-fi movie in which the audience witnesses the drama through “recovered footage” (in the vein of Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project), and retains the pretension of the genre, which is bolstered by the fact that the character holding the camera has the power to make the device float in the air for cinematic shots.

The story follows Andrew (Dane DeHaan), an anti-social highschooler with a dying mother and a drunk dad (Michael Kelly).  Andrew one day decides to “film everything,” including but not limited to his father’s drunken behavior, conversations with his friends, cheerleaders doing their routines (which they don’t much appreciate), and the lewd antics at local parties.  During one such party, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), a popular young blade running for class president, discovers a mysterious hole in the middle of the woods.  Steve invites Andrew and his only friend, cousin Matt (Alex Russell) to check it out with him.  Inside, the trio touch a magical MacGuffin that makes their noses bleed, and the next bit of footage we’re allowed to see features the trio practicing telekinesis (that is, moving objects with their minds).  They decide to become stronger while keeping their new-found powers secret from everyone (which, we must suspect, will not be a success).  Highlights are placed upon Andrew’s seemingly natural aptitude for his powers, while the Plato-quoting, zenlike, borderline hipster Matt struggles with his.  This would be an overt setup for a fight scene if there weren’t so many other plot threads to bite into.

The first thing the trio do with their powers, of course, is terrorize teenage girls and small children.  The film comes off as rather sexist at the outset, employing full use of the No Girls Allowed Clause until the introduction of Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), the love interest of Matt, and even then, she’s only used as a plot device to 1) score more convenient shots because she also carries a camera around, and 2) give Matt someone to protect.  As the story continues, Matt and Steve try to create a social life for Andrew, which backfires as his powers strengthen and the goofing around gives way to a darker narrative in which Andrew, through a series of tell-too-much-and-don’t-show-enough confessionals, decides that he is an “apex predator.”

The difference between Andrew and Tetsuo Shima, deuteragonist of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, who was similarly bullied and spat upon before obtaining telekinetic powers and taking revenge on the world that wronged him, is that Tetsuo eventually realized that what he was doing was wrong.  It was too late for him by that point, as his powers had gone out of control, but here, Andrew never seems to grasp such an idea.  By the end, he seems to have become rage incarnate, rather than the human character we started with.

The film is effective in what it sets out to do: deliver a moral-heavy story involving battles between teenagers who can fly.  Trank accomplishes this while painting a fairly realistic picture of teenage boys.  However, I grow increasingly wary of films that rely on stylistic delivery – take away the “recovered footage” angle, and what are we left with?  One of the most derivative and morally obvious stories since Harry Potter, that’s for sure.  Additionally, the spliced-together film technique sometimes comes off as an excuse for shoddy editing as opposed to a dramatic choice.  Luckily, the film is well-acted, and the decision to use mostly unknown actors is a good one.

All things considered, Chronicle is solid entertainment.  If you’re not bothered by the occasional sexism, formulaic storytelling, corny CG, and an ending with more holes in it than a showerhead, then settle in and let the telekinetically-charged sparks fly.

P.S. Can this be the official replacement for the Akira live-action movie?  I beg you to leave well enough alone.

Chronicle (2012); written by Max Landis; directed by Josh Trank; starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, and Ashley Hinshaw.