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

Up in the Air


Up in the Air

George Clooney as Ryan Bingham is home.

(Paramount) George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Zach Galifianakis, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, Danny McBride, Chris Lowell, Steve Eastin, Young MC. Directed by Jason Reitman

We all create our own cocoons. Some are membrane-thin and allow a great deal to pass through; others are like solid steel and will deflect anything and everything that comes our way.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) has an unenviable job. He works for a consulting firm based in Omaha, Nebraska that sends specialists to businesses all over the country for the purpose of informing employees of those businesses  that they’ve been fired. Think of them as the opposite of corporate headhunters; more like corporate axemen. Given the state of the economy, business is booming.

As a result Bingham spends a great deal of his time on the road, travelling from city to city. The nature of his job requires Bingham to be exposed to extreme emotional responses, ranging from anger to grief. He has isolated himself from this by building a thick shell around him, letting nobody and nothing in. He has become the ultimate road warrior; the things that annoy most of us about travel and air travel in particular bring Bingham comfort. He has piled up enough miles to have become a member of the most elite of frequent flier programs, allowing him to sail through check-in whereas most of us normal schlubs must wait in line.

Bingham also has a side business of his own; motivational speaking, or perhaps more accurately, anti-motivational speaking. Using the metaphor of a backpack, he espouses that the fewer possessions that one has and the fewer relationships that one is in, the better. Sort of like 21st century EST, in a way. While most of his speaking engagements have been in relatively small conferences or seminars, he is getting interest from much larger, more prestigious events.

The anonymity of faceless chain hotel rooms suits him, and he numbs himself further with drinks in hotel lounges. In one such he meets Alex Goran (Farmiga), a fellow road warrior from Chicago who is impressed by his collection of hotel loyalty program cards, but most of all by the Concierge Key, an American Airlines program offered only to the most valued customers. There is one plateau, however, that Bingham has yet to meet – the 10,000,000 mile club, only achieved by six travelers ever. More people have walked to the moon, Bingham tells her, than have received this honor.

Predictably, they wind up in bed but the casual nature of their relationship appeals to both of them and they make plans to meet again later. First however, Bingham must return home to Omaha for a meeting at the corporate headquarters where he receives a bit of a jolt – the company is looking at a software program that will allow them to video conference via computer and in short, terminate via the internet. Bingham’s boss Craig (Bateman) has taken the advice of a young hotshot named Natalie Keener (Kendrick) fresh out of college who has come up with the program.

As you might imagine, Bingham very much disagrees with this new direction and tells his boss so. Furthermore, he feels (quite rightly) that the inexperienced Natalie has no clue what the consultants actually do and what the job entails. Craig agrees and orders him to take Natalie with him on the road and show her the ropes. Bingham is reluctant but Craig is resolute – go on the road with Natalie or don’t go at all. Reluctantly, Bingham consents.

Natalie is woefully unprepared for the rigors of the road and the emotional fallout from the work. Bingham shows her the ropes and some of the tricks and efficiencies of travel; which lines to get into at the security check and that kind of thing. He also shows her how to turn around a bad interview around as he does in St. Louis with Bob (Simmons), a longtime employee. When Natalie’s by-the-book script fails, Bingham turns the situation around with a little well-placed information from Bob’s resume, urging the terminated employee to seize the opportunity to chase the dreams he gave up when he started working the job he’s being let go from. “This is a wake-up call,” he tells Bob and in a sense, he’s right.

Natalie and Bingham don’t get along well, but when her boyfriend dumps her via text message during a stopover when Alex is visiting Bingham, they begin to bond a little. Alex and Bingham, for their part, are finding themselves increasingly attracted to one another.

This further becomes cemented when Bingham goes to northern Wisconsin to attend his sister Julie’s (Lynskey) wedding to a wide-eyed dreamer named Jim (McBride) with Alex in tow as his “date”. The older sister Kara (Morton), who is having marital troubles of her own, notes that Bingham has had zero effect on the lives of the two sisters; he’s absent from their lives in a way that he is absent from his own. Still, everyone has to come off the road sometime and Bingham’s ideal lifestyle looks like it’s about to end.

There are some amusing moments but director Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) hasn’t made a comedy. It’s more of an observational piece, ostensibly on the cold corporate climate that grows more impersonal and dehumanizing by the day.

That makes Bingham the ultimate 21st century worker. His Omaha apartment is a reflection of the sterile, personality-challenged hotel rooms he is most comfortable in. There is nothing personal there, nothing to indicate that a human being lives there. It could easily be the room of a Comfort Inn, only less inviting and less clean.

Clooney fills the role beautifully. He is in many ways, perfect for it; the characters he plays tend to be, emotionally speaking, less accessible than other actors. He is personable enough that people will instinctively like him, but he is so shut off that one wonders if he’s got blood flowing through his veins or machine oil. In a world where most socializing is done remotely via the Internet, he fits in as a kind of ultimate expression of that; a person who may be there physically but not emotionally. As Clooney begins to realize what his life has become, his character panics, leading to some of the most satisfying scenes of the film.

Reitman is a savvy filmmaker and he divides his vignettes with overhead shots of anonymous cities with the name of the city in big graphics; we pass over Wichita, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee without getting a sense of the cities at all – like the characters in the movie, there is nothing to connect us to them other than those graphics. It’s a marvelous device and sets up the action of the movie nicely.

Kendrick does an outstanding job in the ingénue role; she is wide-eyed and innocent, vulnerable in many ways but with her own strength and spunk. This is a career-establishing performance and is being given serious Supporting Actress consideration for the Oscars. Farmiga has become a very dependable actress who has yet to really get that plum role that will define her career; this isn’t it either, but she is still memorable in her role.

The ending was a source of disagreement between Da Queen and I; she didn’t like it at all, whereas I understood it and thought it made organic sense. Some may find the message a bit of a downer, but I think it’s refreshingly realistic. In the end, not all of us are cut out for relationships but that doesn’t mean we don’t need them. In any case, this is another solid film to add to Reitman’s impressive resume; it has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle of the Christmas release glut, but perhaps instead of making a fourth or fifth trek to see Avatar you might want to give this outstanding movie a try.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and Kendrick give terrific performances. Well-directed commentary on the impersonal nature of modern corporate culture and relationships

REASONS TO STAY: Clooney isn’t the most emotionally accessible of actors which makes it hard sometimes to empathize with his character.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sex and language concerns, but the concepts here might be a little much for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With the exception of Simmons and Galifianakis, every person that is fired in the movie is not an actor but a person laid off recently in reality. The filmmakers posted ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as makers of a documentary on the effects of the recession; those who answered the ad were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them and respond either as they had or as they wished they had.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the movie takes place on airplanes, in hotel rooms or in conference rooms. The intimate feeling lends itself to home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Uninvited