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Column Fri Dec 02 2011

Shame, Tyrannosaur, America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments & Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

There isn't a whole lot opening this week, but a lot of what is opening is pretty good stuff. However, I did want to direct your attention to a particularly fun event happening at the famed Music Box Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 2pm. Camp Midnight presents "A Very Carrie Christmas," hosted by the always-entertaining Dick O'Day (the alias for film critic Richard Knight, Jr.), who will screen and provide commentary for Brian De Palma's great 1976 horror classic Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King.

All of the campy details about the day's activities and details about buying advance tickets can be found on the Music Box's website, but the one reason you absolutely must show up is the special appearance of Carrie's mother, Margaret White herself, Piper Laurie, who will take part in a Q&A and who knows what else. There will also be a costume parade, sing-a-long, photos with "Margaret" and "Carrie," and the whole shameless event should be a ton of fun. If I weren't out of town this weekend, you couldn't keep me away. Now, on to more serious business...


The latest work from the clearly dynamic creative partnership between writer-director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender (the two first worked together on the devastating film Hunger and are slated to make Twelve Years A Slave next) is a film best talked about in abstract terms, because if you discuss Shame in specifics, it comes across as nothing more than a movie loaded with sex and nudity. But Shame is a story of a man with an illness that is both sexual in nature and spiritual in the debilitating way it eats away at his humanity.

You might imagine it's difficult to feel bad for a man who is not only addicted to sex but is also attractive and appealing enough to act on his addiction pretty much whenever he wants. We literally see him turn on and seduce a woman on the subway just by locking eyes with her. But in just a few short years, Fassbender has proved to the movie-going world that has noticed him that he's an actor capable of adding extraordinary depth to any character he portrays. He draws us into Brandon Sullivan's world using a great deal of silence and maneuvering through the character's neat and orderly life that sometimes involves bringing a woman home to have aggressive sex or just sit in front of the computer and watch internet porn. There is little difference to him between the two. Brandon is a disconnected soul who takes advantage of the anonymity of living in New York City, and in turn the city is his enabler, providing him with outlets for his every joyless sexual whim.

We get glimpses of Brandon's work life as well, including his interaction with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), who seems to genuinely like him and offers a glimpse of an emotional connection that manifests itself in the bedroom by him not being able to perform with her. We also see Brandon interact with his co-worker David (James Badge Dale), the boorish antithesis of Brandon, who is trying so hard to be slick and charming when out on the town with Brandon that women reject him with authority.

Brandon is able to move through his life appearing to anyone observing to be a normal, somewhat introverted man. But when his extrovert sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, playing well outside her comfort zone with electrifying results) arrives at his doorstep to stay with him, Brandon's internal hell breaks loose and it's very clear her presence isn't just about messing up his stuff; there's a darker past these two share that he'd clearly rather not deal with. What's worse is that when Brandon witnesses his sister throwing herself at men and demeaning herself sexually, he's forced to see someone he cares about get treated like all the women he never cared about.

The interplay between the brother and sister is riveting and endlessly fascinating, especially in a prolonged sequence at a nightclub where Sissy performs as a singer. During her smoldering blues version of "New York, New York," Brandon's façade drops ever so slightly, and he lets her into his heart. But true to McQueen's vision of Brandon, the second the song is over, the walls go back up between the two. As engaging as Fassbender is capable of being, he's at his absolute best here as a detached, icy creature showing only hints of the human being that lies beneath. The screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan eventually examines what it takes to tears down Brandon's emotional barriers, but by that point the damage may be done.

The film's genuine surprise is in Mulligan's performance. Known for playing quiet, more reserved characters in An Education or earlier this year in Drive, Mulligan portrays Sissy as a person who lives on the surface — the exact opposite of her brother, who buries everything deep. Watching these two polar opposites dance around each other, but still share the common bond of being damaged, will be one of the purest joys you'll have all year. Shame has garnered a bit of attention for being released with an NC-17 rating, and with good reason — everyone gets exceedingly naked in this movie. And while sex is usually the reason for all the nudity, there are a few shots of Fassbender just walking naked around his apartment, with the message being that Brandon doesn't assign any sexuality to his nakedness; you get used to it pretty quick.

Without a doubt, Shame is the most compelling film out there right now and certainly one of the best of the year, featuring Fassbender's finest work to date, including his performance in the upcoming A Dangerous Method. He's an endless source of fascination for me, as he continues to impress in both mainstream work like Inglourious Basterds and as Magneto in X-Men: First Class, as well as smaller works like Fish Tank and Jane Eyre. But if he isn't considered a front runner in every award given out in the next couple of months, then people just aren't paying attention. This is a slow week for new releases, so if you're old enough, you should absolutely find out where this film is playing near you.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Shame star Michael Fassbender and director/co-writer Steve McQueen.


What is it about British actors turning to directing that makes them want to explore the darkest parts of human behavior? Take a look at films directed by Gary Oldman (Nil By Mouth), Tim Roth (The War Zone), Ralph Fiennes (the upcoming Coriolanus), Peter Mullan (The Magdalene Sisters) and now Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, and you'll see a succession of depraved sexual practices and bloody violence that is so concentrated, it's as if they're released some pent-up pressure in their brains all at once. It also happens that nearly all of those films are varying degrees of excellent, so this isn't a judgement as much as it is a curiosity.

Tyrannosaur is the story of two very broken people. One is an unemployed alcoholic name Joseph (Mullan) who we meet as he kills his dog (dog lovers will hate this movie for multiple reasons). In the past, Joe was a cruel man, prone to angry outbursts and acts of violence, but he's trying to better himself, which is tough when he's full of self loathing and whiskey. Then there's Hannah (the magnificent Olivia Colman), a Christian charity shop worker married to the most evil husband in the world, James (Eddie Marsan). When we meet him, we don't even see his face. He stumbles home drunk to discover Hannah asleep on the sofa; he tries to wake her unsuccessfully and then urinates on her sleeping body before going to bed himself. Turns out she was awake for the entire incident, which we sense isn't an isolated moment of cruelty.

One day Joseph comes into Hannah's store, and the two have a fairly heated exchange about God and faith. Joe almost can't help but be confrontational on the subject, but Hannah sees Joe as someone she was meant to save. This attraction to damaged men may be at the heart of Hannah's marriage as well, but she refuses to ever get angry or upset with Joseph, instead attempting to reach him with kindness and friendship. But even when Joseph is calm, he still exhibits signs of his former self, especially when he talks about his long-dead wife in unflattering terms (the film's title factors into this). But the interplay between Joseph and Hannah is so unusual, and at times we wonder who is saving who. After one particularly nasty abusive session at her husband's hands, Hannah moves in with Joseph, who goes to confront James and is met with something utterly unexpected.

Tyrannosaur is a complex film about simple people. Never satisfied to deliver a cliche-driven story about his characters writer-director Considine delivers sometimes contradictory messages about the spiritual starvation or abundance of his creations. But whatever he's up to here, he never flinches or compromises from telling his story in the most effective and often shocking means at his disposal. It's impossible to keep your eyes off Mullan and Colman, separately or together. They are not always easy characters to like, but we absolutely want to know how they complete this part of their tumultuous journey. Tyrannosaur is not always an easy film to like or even enjoy, but it is undeniably powerful stuff. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments

In 2007, filmmaker Darryl Roberts make the entertaining and often thought-provoking documentary America the Beautiful, focusing on the nation's collective definition of beauty and the lengths to which people (mostly women) will go to to adhere to the standards of beauty. It was a sometimes disturbing examination of child modeling, plastic surgery, airbrushing and toxic cosmetics, as well as the celebrities who lead the charge into altering our perception of beauty. One might say that a big subset of beauty obsession is weight, as in what weight is considered "thin" and what is considered "healthy." As the say, the answer may surprise you.

By injecting his own struggles with weight, health and fitness, Roberts makes a much more personal film with America the Beautiful 2, and asks tough questions and challenges age-old measures of weight, especially the Body Mass Index (BMI), developed in the 1800s and never meant to be a gauge of one's health. Roberts makes the point that according to modern BMI standards, Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson and Will Smith are all various levels of overweight or obese. Roberts also looks at dieting, cleansing, eating disorders (in both women and men, which may have been the film's biggest eye opener), and people who are dangerously addicted to working out.

When Roberts is simply giving us statistics, America the Beautiful 2 isn't as interesting as when he gets personal. He has a friend he believes is working out too much, and her encounter with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders is gripping. I also especially liked his interview with Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebilius as he confronts her with (and she dodges) the question of government-subsidized high-fructose corn syrup in children's food running counter for the First Lady's war on childhood obesity. But it's also Roberts' own weigh-ins, visits to the doctor, and finding a healthy lifestyle he can actually maintain — he couldn't give up his fast food but he upped his exercise, and the results were beyond impressive.

An especially moving segment of America the Beautiful 2 is an interview with plus-size model Anansa Johnson, daughter to groundbreaking African-American supermodel Beverly Johnson, who when she was younger and just getting into modeling developed some grossly unhealthy eating/not eating issues. The film is full of painfully personal accounts such as this, and it bolsters the strength of the film considerably. Roberts has a folksy, disarmingly sweet interview style that allows his subjects to trust him quickly, but also makes it possible for him to sneak in the occasional hard question to doctors or government leaders when he wants to challenge them. Roberts isn't attempting to break any new ground with his filmmaking style, but the depth to which he dives into his subject is impressive. The film opens today, Dec. 2 at the Music Box Theatre, with Roberts appearing in person at the 7:30pm show.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Technically, this Brazilian film is a sequel, but I never saw the first film, and apparently it doesn't matter even a little bit. Director José Padilha is known for combining intense, brutal action with political over/undertones (his kidnapping documentary Bus 174 is essential viewing), and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within fits that bill without fail. Opening with a prison riot turned slaughter witnessed by a media-friendly human rights activist with political aspirations, the plot focuses on the police captain (Wagner Moura) who was in charge of defusing the situation.

Although it was one of his trigger-happy underlings who caused the massacre, he takes the fall. But in an interesting twist, the nation seems to be behind the killing of these criminals, so he ends up getting promoted to head the titular elite squad. Believe it or not, his focus is stopping corrupt cops, who seem to be making a lot of money off of Brazil's criminal activities, especially the drug trade. He figures if the dirty cops are brought down, crime may drop. But few things go as planned, and the resulting film is something of a loud, fiery, explosion-filled world of chaos and violence.

What's unique about Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is that there's a functioning brain behind the mayhem, and as much as this is a full-bore action film, it's also quite smart in the way it walks us through how deep and intricate the corruption truly is. Padilha is as much a sociologist as he is a filmmaker, and while the movie certainly doesn't feel like homework, you will likely come out the other side of this two-hour effort feeling a little more street smart. But if you have found yourself tired of Hollywood, paint-by-numbers action films, Elite Squad is as smart and unpredictable as they come. The film opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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