Friday, December 9, 2011

"Shame" Review

Sex without the pleasure — and you thought starving to death in an Irish prison was rough. Following Hunger, director Steve McQueen's new collaboration with Michael Fassbender is a similarly self-destructive character study. Shame stars the latter as Brandon Sullivan, a sex-addicted New York businessman whose explicit lifestyle is threatened by the surprise arrival of his orphaned sister (Carey Mulligan). Loaded with full-frontal male and female nudity and graphic depictions of sex, the NC-17 rated flick may not be coming to a theater near you.

Far from crass or exploitative, however, McQueen's film succeeds in making Brandon's many lascivious liaisons feel obligatory rather than erotic. Shame is Requiem for a Dream for sex. A gorgeously shot but emotionally upending orgy late in the film drives home the utter desperation of the act in a prolonged close up on Brandon's contorted face. Excited yet?

McQueen's flirted with minimalism before. Smack dab in the middle of Hunger is a seventeen and a half minute static shot in which Fassbender's character dialogues with a priest. While it showcases two terrific performances, such laissez-faire filmmaking techniques do little for me. Shame likewise features long, deliberate takes, but McQueen's evolution as a director is apparent from his dynamic use of the frame.

For example, during a dinner date between Brandon and his coworker (Nicole Beharie), a subtle camera push-in (from the wide restaurant interior, bustling with the comings and goings of patrons and waiters, to an intimate two shot) keeps the emphasis on the performances without needlessly drawing attention to the process. It's the rare circumstance where more is actually less. Conversely, the extreme close up of Carey Mulligan's face when she performs a heart-wrenching rendition of "New York, New York" works because she fills the entire frame. By comparison, the aforementioned sequence in Hunger is visually flabby, full of superfluous space.

But Shame isn't just a technical triumph — even more compelling is what's in the abstract. Fassbender's alluringly enigmatic portrayal of his volatile character is the centerpiece of a complex, cerebral story. Brandon carries his addiction like a ticking time bomb in his breast pocket, and things get particularly uncomfortable with his vulnerable (and oddly familiar) sister around. Their relationship adds a grimy layer of squeamish tension to the film.

Unhappiness manifests itself in many shapes in Shame, from Brandon's insatiable carnal appetite to the loneliness of the women in his life. Incapable of transcending their physical connections, the characters share sex or blood, but don't understand each other or strive to communicate better. The result is intercourse that frequently comes across dehydrating, disgusting, or dehumanizing. Sometimes all three!

Shame isn't without its moments of levity. McQueen's subtle humor saves him from slipping into the mire of downbeat melodrama. James Badge Dale plays Brandon's wingman (or is it the other way around?), whose paper-thin personality and repeated drunken strikeouts never fail to conjure a smirk. Also, I'm not sure there's a world where getting caught masturbating isn't at least a little funny. But leave it to Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender to make it captivating too.

The culmination of lesser successes, Shame sees both actor and director at their best. Fassbender makes Brandon's incongruities flesh (so to speak), and McQueen strikes the perfect balance between minimalistic staging and cinematic artistry. Shame is an ambitious, ambiguous film that ranks easily among the year's best. Plus, you get to see Michael Fassbender naked. There's also that.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Hugo" Review

Who's the audience for Hugo? With roots in the fantasy/adventure genres and a comfortable color palette for the Harry Potter and Twilight crowds, "preteen" seems a safe bet. But it undergoes a metamorphosis around the midpoint that fixed my posture and put the kids to bed. Not that I'm complaining.

The two halves of Hugo are at odds. In the first hour, we meet Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield – the spitting image of a prepubescent Malcolm MacDowell), an orphan and wee tinkerer living behind the walls of a Parisian train station circa 1930. He lives only to wind the clocks and scavenge parts for his prized automaton – a wrecked robot with sentimental ties to his late father (Jude Law). A chance encounter with a young girl (Chloë Moretz) may be the key to unlocking the secret of his antiquated android.

In the second, Scorsese taps his inner film buff. Enter French silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose spectacular oddball A Trip to the Moon features prominently. Hugo posthumously honors the artist's underappreciated oeuvre, complete with stunning recreations of his avant-garde genre flicks. The also-underrated Michael Stuhlbarg plays film historian Rene Tabard, a champion of Méliès' lost legacy.

Somehow, the story of a boy and his robot and the redemption of a brilliant, misunderstood artist mesh, if reluctantly. I can't feign complete enthusiasm for Hugo's by-the-numbers fantasy beginning, but loved the playful manipulation of art history it preceded. Conversely, I imagine the general audience will go for the "Once Upon A Time," but neither know nor care who Méliès is. Some may walk away none the wiser to the elements of nonfiction.

Unifying Hugo's disparate halves are gorgeous storybook visuals bolstered by inspired use of 3D tech. Action sequences up the gee-whiz factor, but Scorsese's most compelling use of the gimmick is also among his most subtle; touches like adding the effect to Méliès' films has the revelatory effect of making history come alive. And it doesn't carry the stink of desperation that accompanies Disney and Star Wars' conversions. As a magician who embraced every trick in the book, Méliès would have loved 3D.

Another constant is the caliber of the performances. The principals are solid, and Hugo is packed with veteran character actors who breathe vibrant life into their world. Folks like Ray Winstone as Hugo's Drunken Uncle, Ben Kingsley as a shopkeeper with a secret, Christopher Lee as a kindhearted librarian, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the bumbling station inspector help even the one-dimensional roles shine.

Pushing himself while pushing 70, you have to admire Scorsese's dogged tenacity. The director won his long-belated Best Director Oscar in 2007 for The Departed, which seems to have freed him from falling into an Eastwood-esque downward spiral; first with the psychological thriller Shutter Island, and now with the unabashed fantasy, Hugo. That jarring juxtaposition is just one factor in obfuscating who its audience is supposed to be.

Diplomatically, the new Martin Scorsese picture aims to please everyone, but divides more than it unites. Parents may be left twiddling their thumbs during the first drama-lite hour, and kids may nod off during the second half history lesson. However, for a particular breed of cinephile, Hugo is magic – a love letter to film from a master of the medium. Scorsese's adoration is tangible – not for Georges Méliès specifically – but for artists both great and small. It's sublime. It's beautiful. But bring a pillow.