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Shame

It’s brave as all get-out, so I respect it for that alone. It’s also a highly successful mood piece…with a pair of courageous and exacting performances from the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender(presenting a serious challenge to Jessica Chastain’s film tally of the last couple of years)and the difficult-to-categorize Carey Mulligan. More than once I’ve read about “Shame” being compared to “Eyes Wide Shut”, but I don’t think the comparison quite swims. Maybe it treads water. For whereas, the “Eyes Wide Shut” theme of sexual obsession plays second fiddle to its primary focus on marriage and fidelity(more on this in a hopefully soon “Flashback” feature), the addiction of Brandon(Mr. Fassbender)certainly leaps to the forefront and takes center stage. This is not pornography, but it is certainly frank. Many are going to despise this and call its abundant nudity and explicit couplings unnecessary…and I have no patience for those people. They should exhibit more anger for every bullshit Jennifer Aniston rom-com that pollutes the multiplexes every few months, than toward a starkly adult feature that tries to present a man’s compulsive habits in a realistic and serious manner. We’ve really become a nation of children if audiences don’t allow room for this type of examination. Skip it if you can’t handle it…ya wimp.               Brandon is a 30-something ad exec living in one of those impossibly gorgeous and spacious NYC apartments…with an astonishing view to boot. Secret little thing about Brandon though…he needs constant sexual stimulation. His work computer is littered with viruses and porn sites(which is pushed off on some unnamed intern). He also masturbates in the bathroom stall. Brandon visits local bars with his married boss, and scores a stunning blonde in an alleyway soon after his supervisor fails at the same conquest. When women aren’t easy to come by, there is ample prostitution available in the Big Apple. When hookers aren’t around, there are underground clubs that cater to amorous proclivities. Brandon gets plenty of action. Of course, it doesn’t take long to identify intimacy and that old commitment bugaboo as the issue, and the attempted courtship of a recently divorced co-worker throws light on Brandon’s failings. Of course, we also have the arrival of Sissy(Ms. Mulligan), and her unwelcome entrance into her brother Brandon’s private domain. We know Sissy is troubled as soon as we hear her voice on her sibling’s answering machine in the film’s early going. There are hints of bad relationships, substance addiction and suicide attempts in her past. But she’s trying to make a go of it as a nightclub singer, and Brandon reluctantly allows her to crash at his place while she locks down some cash through some local gigs. Brandon arrives with his boss one night at a jazzy club to watch his sister perform. After a mesmerizing performance(shot in close-up)of Sissy crooning “New York, New York”, Brandon becomes emotional and his sleazy employer is enamored…he has sex with Sissy later that night. Brandon’s privacy is increasingly at peril now, with Sissy walking in on her brother pleasuring himself and coming across live sex sites on his laptop. And emotionally they are both primed to fly off-the-rails.               Director Steve McQueen(no relation..he’s a Brit)is a major talent, as previously exhibited in his 2008 debut “Hunger” about the 1981 starvation protest of Bobby Sands(also starring Fassbender). That film gave us unsparing detail of Sands’ eventual death, and likewise “Shame” provides us with plentiful glimpses into Brandon’s perversions. There are hints throughout of troubled childhoods creating Brandon and Sissy as somewhat damaged goods. He may have gotten over the hump more than she did, but his continued prosperity appears to perpetually be in danger. Incest is implied, but never deeply explored…and I’m fine with that. It works better as mystery. Another disconnect from the “Eyes Wide Shut” comparison? Cruise and Kidman’s characters never act upon their fantasies in Kubrick’s 1999 final bow. In that film, it’s teased, it’s coy, it’s suggested—but never carried out. Brandon’s life in “Shame”, on the other hand, is dripping with sex. And he espouses an all-out hatred for the concept of marriage on his very first date with his office co-worker. So, “Shame” is an original in my book. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and its maturity is refreshing. It’s also stunningly photographed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and briskly edited by Joe Walker. This is the 5th film I’ve watched with Michael Fassbender in the last year, and he is a handsome chameleon with an eclectic range. Carey Mulligan’s 2011 one-two punch included the marvelous “Drive” and this. Wasn’t certain of how appropriate her type was for the former, but she is perfect as Sissy. And I’m sure I will seek out McQueen’s next project when it arrives. I know it won’t be easy-going, but it will undoubtedly be worthwhile.         Grade:  A-

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