Review: Shame

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The Pitch: The naked truth.

The Review: Willy. Dinkle. Ding-dong. Schlong. Dick. Penis. Silly words, aren’t they? Got that out of our systems for now? Good. When I was at school, and the time came for sex education, our teacher put in the shiny new VHS cassette, pressed play and within five minutes a man and a woman appeared, walking around their house like the fruity naturists they obviously were, with not a stitch of clothing on. To a room full of eleven year olds, this was worthy of plenty of laughing, pointing and discussion, until we were told if we continued, the tape would go off again and wouldn’t come back on. But that urge to giggle at the mere mention of genitalia, never mind seeing them on screen, is still suppressed deep down in a great many of us, and it’s also that need to suppress the nature of discussing or seeing something that pretty much every one of us has that has seen Shame get a lot of attention for mostly the wrong reasons. It’s felt at times as if Shame has been categorised along with the pornography that its lead character is so fond of, yet the comparison feels as sensible as likening Goodfellas to The Three Stooges on the basis of slightly funny looking people with strong accents.

One thing’s absolutely for sure; Steve McQueen isn’t afraid to shy away from the big issues or themes. His first film, Hunger, was a triumph of style marrying grimness to substance with his story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Michael Fassbender took on the lead role both then and here, but the characters couldn’t be more different. Put him in a crowd, and Fassbender’s Brandon might be the coolest looking there, but he’ll be the one at the back, doing whatever he can to avoid drawing attention to himself. Your eyes might be drawn to him if you’re an attractive woman; you can be sure, if that’s the case, that his eyes will already be on you, and will have discreetly looked you up and down, mentally undressing you both physically and emotionally. But Brandon might also be hanging back for fear of commitment; physical contact and emotional gratification are right up his alley, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the thought of emotional connection to a woman, even his own sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan), seems to be the furthest thing from his mind.

First things first, then: Shame isn’t really about sex. It’s been loosely described as being about sex addiction, but that might be no more than an attempt to put a 21st century label on the fractured psyche of a man who just can’t say no to himself; but then again, why should he? In our internet led society of instant gratification and ready access to whatever you might desire, is it any wonder that someone channelling their OCD and overactive libido ends up following a path such as Brandon? it’s easy for Brandon to keep his deeper desires and needs to himself, but whenever his life rubs up against normal society, the relative innocents – or sister Cissy, about as far from innocent as Brandon – are what brings Brandon’s peccadilloes into sharper focus. Fassbender is fantastic, possibly in a career best performance in what’s been a busy few years, and retains just enough sympathy to keep your investment in the story, despite his more obvious character flaws. Again the charm and smoothness that’s picked him out as a future Bond in the likes of last year’s X-Men prequel are put to good use, but even Bond might blush at some of what Brandon gets up to, and it’s a neat trick in creating a character that both compels and repulses, often at the same time. Mulligan has a smaller role, but she’s almost up to the same standard, and her brashness and brittleness offer a strong dramatic counterpoint to Fassbender.

But Shame would be nothing without a director willing to take on material like this, and Steve McQueen succeeds in taking Shame up another level from his previous film. Hunger was almost a film in three distinct acts, the second of which was a standout single take scene between Bobby Sands and a priest. Shot from a fixed viewpoint, the conversation gripped despite being two people at a table, but even then, McQueen knew just when to cut to a more conventional shot for heightened effect. Here, his visual style is taken up a notch; from the crisp, functional blandness of Brandon’s apartment to the golden shimmer of New York nightlife, Shame looks gorgeous, and it’s not the occasional shots of genitalia at the edge of frame that will linger in the mind after the film finishes. The long single camera set-ups are put to more frequent use, but none outstays their welcome. The tight close-up on Mulligan’s face during her slow jazz rendition of New York, New York might get the most attention, but another scene were Fassbender has a dinner date is even better, allowing the slow burn of the chemistry between him and his prospective partner to ooze off the screen, every tiny detail captured in the frame.

As outstanding a debut as it was, Hunger still felt as if it would be as comfortable in an art installation as it would in a cinema. Shame feels made with only one possible destination in mind, the tricks less apparent when taken at a distance and the performances raw and resonant.  By the end, the vice-like grip that’s slowly been exerted throughout the film takes hold and refuses to let go amid scenes of almost unbearable tension. Through it all, the flesh on display is kept to a few scenes and used to best effect each time it’s seen; you might need to repress those inner-child giggles when the first male member appears, somewhat briefly and briskly, but by halfway through it’s to the credit of all involved that no matter what’s seen on screen, it feels perfectly in service of the narrative. The real shame in all this is that from the US’s NC-17 rating to the judgemental looks from the usher as your ticket is checked, Shame has been judged by its reputation, which might deny the film the level of viewers its quality deserves. (Balls.)

Why see it at the cinema: McQueen and Fassbender are genuine talents; the long sequences demand to be seen in a cinema to allow you to soak in every single detail. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you immerse yourself in Shame.

The Score: 10/10

Review: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

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The Pitch: Where were we again? Oh yes, Horcruxes 3, Hallows 2 (before extra time).

The Review: So, it’s all come down to this. Ten years it’s taken, but the boy wizard has grown up and now must become a man, as his epic quest to defeat Voldemort must come to a climax. Of course, it could be six months since you saw Part 1, and that in itself wasn’t really the start of the end of the story. For that we have to look back to film number six, where we learned of the horcruxes and the fact that destroying them was essential to destroying He-Who-Has-His-Nose-Removed-In-Post-Production. Somehow, the first part of the final film not only managed just to turn up one more horcrux, but also featured J.K. Rowling’s attempt to achieve the maximum number of MacGuffins in one film as the Deathly Hallows were also introduced. If you’ve somehow forgotten all of this before going in, then good luck keeping up. You’re going to need it.

The biggest stumbling block to the flow of events is the nature of where the split took place. While the climactic events of Part 1 may have been a reasonably dramatic ending, they have resulted in a slightly fractured Part 2, which consists of two parts. The first is a trip to Gringott’s bank on the search for the next horcrux, and then the trail leads back, somewhat inevitably, to Hogwarts, where events come to a head and Voldemort and his cronies lay siege to an increasingly beleaguered staff and students. As you would expect with such an epic saga, this is where everything has to come to a head, but unlike your Star Wars or your Lord Of The Rings, where the main cast have been split into a number of different groups and increasing amounts of cross-cutting are required to keep up with events, we by and large follow the central trio as they navigate through events, and so there are never more than two real narrative strands going on.

There’s an unfortunate side-effect of this; as ever, it’s driven initially by the book’s choices and consequently there’s a lot that happens off screen in the last half of the movie. Whole swathes of characters who’ve had significant screen time in the previous chapters get blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos here, some not even getting a line, and while there’s more death here of known characters than either Lucas or Jackson’s epics in their respective final chapters, almost all of it here happens off screen, and largely robs it of feeling – a clearer distinction between book and screen here, and just a little more division of focus in the right places, might have paid great dividends. The plot also takes no prisoners, so if you don’t remember your basics, like the names of the four school houses, then a lot of this will just be short people running around waving sticks at each other. The literary slavishness also extends to the epilogue; reports say they filmed it twice, but to be honest they could have filmed it a thousand times and it would never have been anything other than laughable.

But these are not huge faults, and the overall tone is kept on a tight leash; from the opening bank raid, the tension is ratcheted up, the mood is dark and the stakes are high, and there’s a suitably epic feel to scenes at Hogwarts that even surpasses the sweeping vistas of Prisoner Of Azkaban. But high stakes also require high acting, and as good as Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become, their best moments are in earlier films. The highlights are the wonderful Ralph Fiennes, who never feels anything less than pure evil and wraps his tongue around his lines without ever making it feel pantomime, and Alan Rickman, who has excelled as Severus Snape right throughout the series and does some of his best, and most understated work, here as his true nature and motives finally become apparent. All in all a largely satisfying end to a mixed saga, but let’s hope J.K. Rowling, and Warner Brothers, leave well enough alone now, sleeping on their giant piles of cash.

Why see it at the cinema: Probably the second best of the series, the epic scope and scale of destruction wrought deserves a trip to the cinema – and it might be the last chance you get to see Potter on the big screen, outside that inevitable 25th anniversary re-release with added elves.

Why see it in 3D: There have been complaints that it’s dark and murky, but if you take the 3D glasses off you realise how much they’ve upped the light levels to compensate for the effect of the glasses. Most of the “in your face” moments happen early on, so it’s by no means essential to see this in 3D.

The Score: 7/10