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Steve McQueen ('Hunger') co-writes and directs this starkly honest portrait of a man struggling with sex addiction. Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a lonely 30-something New York bachelor who lives a carefully-concealed second life revolving around excessive levels of casual sex, prostitutes, pornography and masturbation. When his depressive sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives unannounced to stay with him, seeking refuge from her own troubles, Brandon's life starts to unravel as his dark and shameful secrets are revealed.
For more about Shame and the Shame Blu-ray release, see Shame Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on April 17, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Amy Hargreaves, Nicole Beharie, Hannah Ware
Director: Steve McQueen (III)
» See full cast & crew
Shame Blu-ray Review
Ecstasy and Agony in New York
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, April 17, 2012
Leading man Michael Fassbender and English artist-turned-director Steve McQueen—no, not that Steve McQueen—have a burgeoning De Niro/Scorsese-style working relationship that, with Shame, has now yielded two phenomenal films. Their first collaboration, 2008's Hunger—about real-life hunger strike activist Bobby Sands—required Fassbender to lose over 30lbs in ten weeks, subsiding on a 600 calorie-per-day diet of nuts, berries, and sardines. I like to imagine that afterwards, McQueen made a conciliatory offer to his star: "Look, Michael, I really put you through the ringer with that one. How about this; for our next film, you get to play a sex addict. You'll just have to lie in bed and look on while sexy call-girls undress for you. Easiest gig ever."
And indeed, there's an early scene in Shame where that happens—Fassbender ogles an escort as she takes off her shirt—and you think, man, this guy's got it made. No acting required. But that's before the desperation and self-loathing take hold. Like its title implies, Shame is ultimately about the feeling of profound humiliation, and Fassbender's performance is absolutely courageous—alluring and repulsive, hardened and exposed. Literally exposed, in several instances. If you've been following the film, you already know Fassbender bares all, and that he has, let's say, a lot to bare. But despite its NC-17 rating—for "some explicit sexuality"—there's nothing in Shame that's remotely arousing. Steve McQueen's approach to the subject matter isn't just un-erotic, it's anti-erotic, all pain with no pleasure.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful thirty-something Manhattanite who works at some slick, nameless downtown firm—what he does has no bearing on the story—and lives in an apartment that's so minimalist and anonymous that it could pass for a designer furniture showroom. Unbeknownst to his coworkers--he doesn't seem to have friends--Brandon is an insatiable sex addict. He watches porn on his laptop while eating Chinese takeout. He jacks off around the clock--in the shower, into the sink, in the toilet stall at work. He hires prostitutes and pays for online sex shows.
It's not like he can't get it for free. Handsome and enigmatic, he's practically a magnet for the opposite gender. In one brilliantly acted and edited early scene, Brandon stares intently, almost threateningly at a cute strawberry blond on the subway—undeterred by the ring on her finger—and we see her nearly melt under his gaze. Later, he plays wingman at a nightclub for his slimy, over-enthusiastically flirting boss, David (James Badge Dale), but it's Brandon who attracts all the real attention. One of the ladies from the bar actually picks him up outside—he doesn't even have to try —and they drive off to an abandoned construction site to screw against a concrete embankment. For Brandon, it's just one more in a string of commitment-free orgasms, a physical release divorced from emotion and attachment. He listens to Bach as he jogs through the cold city streets, but Brandon's theme song might as well be Simon & Garfunkle's "I Am A Rock."
He's an island, and Shame is positively Antonioni-esque in its sense of alienation and disengagement. Even New York itself is depersonalized here—there are no familiar sights to be seen—and McQueen favors shots that isolate Brandon in his environment, the archetypal lone man lost in the unfeeling city. Brandon's fortress of sexual solitude is breached, however, when his depressed sister Sissy (Carrie Mulligan)—a cabaret singer—arrives from Los Angeles and shows up in his apartment unannounced. (He thinks she's an intruder and nearly clobbers her with a baseball bat.) Sissy is Brandon's polar opposite, emotionally needy and hungry for real relationships, and where he internalizes his issues, she wants to talk, to clear the air, to get everything out in the open. Brandon lets her stay at his place since she's got nowhere else to go, but she's the spark to his powder keg of neuroses, and the inevitable explosion brings a destructive and purifying fire.
There's a strange tension between them that hints of incest, or at least some dark family secret—"We're not bad people," Sissy says, "we just come from a bad place"—and though the film thankfully never takes that to its logical conclusion, it does skirt rather closely around taboo. Fassbender and Mulligan are great together—in an uncomfortable way—and their onscreen interactions have a dangerous frisson. When Sissy sleeps with his boss, Brandon seemingly reacts with more jealously than annoyance, and the fight they have after Sissy walks in on him masturbating is super-charged with sexual electricity. At the same time, Sissy's sudden presence is a catalyst for change in Brandon's life. Her hauntingly slow rendition of "New York, New York" cracks his cool exterior, bringing a tear to his eye. At one point, in a fit of I've-had-enough inspiration, he throws years of accumulated porn mags and DVDs out on the sidewalk in garbage bags. He even goes on a comparatively "normal" date with a coworker (Nicole Beharie), and makes small stabs at actual human interaction. Tellingly, though, when he's faced with a real sexual encounter—with someone he has genuine feeling for— he balks, stopped painfully short by performance anxiety.
Like a latter-day Last Tango in Paris, Shame is unflinchingly matter-of-fact about sex, and in some ways operates as a commentary on the contemporary American attitudes of hushing it up completely or over-sensationalizing it, an unhealthy approach in either case. Whatever your thoughts on sexual addiction—be it an uncontrollable personality disorder or a personal choice—it is a cultural issue worth addressing, and McQueen deserves credit for tackling the subject with maturity, artistry, and insight. Sex is complicated, of course—an evolutionary biological imperative that's basically been hijacked by social norms and expectations—and McQueen is primarily interested in exploring the psychological power it wields. In Brandon's case, sex is a pacifier and a distraction, a way of soothing unresolved emotional pain. The film never reveals what Brandon's particular pain is, exactly, or where it comes from, but the ambiguity is welcome. McQueen doesn't over-explain or rely on unnecessary exposition; he lets Fassbender's body do the talking, so to speak, in a performance that's simultaneously muscular, charismatic, and extremely vulnerable. Shame isn't easy to watch—shame never is—but it's an impassioned, brutally honest piece of filmmaking.
Shame Blu-ray, Video Quality
A British co-production of Film4 and See-Saw Films—later picked up for U.S. distribution by Fox Searchlight—Shame is a fairly low-budget drama by Hollywood standards. Still, the film features wonderful cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Hunger, and the 35mm negative transfers nicely to Blu-ray, with a 1080p/AVC encode that's clean, reasonably crisp, and natural looking. Much of the movie takes place at night, necessitating the use of high-speed film stock, so you will notice that the picture is quite grainy at times. This is normal, and far better than the alternative—an image that's been smoothed out and stripped of texture by digital noise reduction. Sharpness is also slightly affected—nighttime exterior scenes inherently look softer—but overall clarity is great, with fine high definition detail easily visible in most closeups. Color is consistently impressive, with grading that subtly mirrors the mood of each scene—see the almost septic green cast in the subway scenes—and a contrast balance that's neither too punchy nor too flat. There's maybe a bit of compression noise in the encode, but no major distractions. An all-around faithful-to-source transfer.
Shame Blu-ray, Audio Quality
For a drama that's driven by quiet conversation and a good deal of silence, Shame's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is surprisingly robust, with warmth, clarity, depth, and some excellent sound design as well. The entire soundfield is put to use, and in the rear channels you'll frequently hear outdoor city ambience—traffic, subway clamor, pouring rain—along with the swell and strain of a terrific score by Harry Escott, which adds some romance to a film that might otherwise come off as clinical. The music sounds fantastic, and if you're into film soundtracks, this might be one worth tracking down. I also didn't expect how much of a part the subwoofer plays in this mix, adding a throbbing undercurrent to some of the more intense scenes. Throughout it all, dialogue is always cleanly recorded, balanced high in the mix, and easy to understand. The disc also includes a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dub, and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Shame Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
I would've loved a commentary track with Fassbender and McQueen, some deleted scenes, and a revealing making-of documentary, but unfortunately, the disc only comes with a quintet of extremely short featurettes, none of which are very substantial. This is straightforward EPK/promo-type stuff— quick interviews with the director and stars, brief discussions about the characters and story, and clips from the film. Worth watching once, but nothing you'll revisit.
Shame Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I hope the director/star team-up of Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender continues on for years to come. Hunger was my favorite film of 2008, and Shame—a sad character study of sexual addiction—sits easily in my top five for 2011. This is a challenging, beautifully shot film that's by no means easy to watch, but presents its truths so compellingly that it's impossibly to look away. As you'd expect from 20th Century Fox, the Blu-ray presentation is great—with a strong high definition transfer and lossless audio—and though the special features are slim on substance, this release is highly recommended.
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