Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shame (2011)

One of the most crucial scenes in Shame occurs right in the beginning. Our film's main character, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), is innocently sitting on a New York City subway, minding his own business. Suddenly he does a double-take when he notices that a seductive redhead is sitting directly across the cart, looking right at him.

From then, the two spend minutes staring an one other, undressing each other with their eyes. We view the unnamed redhead from Brandon's perspective, as his eyes drift from her face to the laced stockings that cover her legs. Their fellow subway riders, meanwhile, go about their own business, oblivious to the sensual showdown occurring next to them.

If Shame was a romantic comedy, the scene would be endearing, with catchy, light elevator music playing in the background to entertain us. But the movie is an intense character study, and instead, we get dramatic -- almost sinister -- music playing in the background, suggesting some type of struggle. And there is indeed a struggle, and it exists within Brandon's mind.

Steve McQueen's (no, not that Steve McQueen) Shame is about a man with a sexual addiction. I say this scene is crucial because, right away, it introduces us to the daily happenings of Brandon's life, and sets the tone for the entire film. He can't even complete a simple task, like riding a subway, without being overcome with desire.

The film aspires, through a variety of different scenes, to show just how Brandon's addiction affects his ability to function in every day society. Off the bat, that ability seems fine, as we learn that the 30-something year-old lives in a high rise flat in the heart of the city. He has a good job, and he is single, while living an extremely private life. So private that no one he associates with is even aware of his sexual addiction.

Michael Fassbender in Shame.
In another early scene, we witness the advantages that come with Brandon's addiction. While at a bar with his boss, David (James Badge Dale) and other coworkers, David makes a drunken attempt to pick up a blond women who he deems is "gorgeous." We watch for a brief while as he attempts to court her, and then a couple of minutes later, Brandon steps in, and by uttering less than two sentences, he wins the girl. One of the biggest enablers of Brandon's addiction is that he both good looking and extremely suave.

But then we see the struggles that come with his addiction. While at work, he can't go a full day without sneaking into the bathroom to masturbate. Additionally, his computer gets confiscated after the technicians discover that it's chock-full of pornography.

While on a date with an attractive co-worker, we learn -- unsurprisingly -- that Brandon has no desire to commit to a girl. He tells his date that he does not believe in marriage, is in fact disgusted by the thought of it, and then he shares that the longest relationship he's ever been in lasted four months.

Brandon's life is then thrown into a tailspin when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to visit. She is a very dependent, unstable women who has had trouble functioning on her own. Reluctantly, Brandon agrees to let her stay for a few days. Sissy often complains about how she never sees Brandon, and how he never returns her calls, notifying the viewer that Brandon's private life has also caused him to essentially sever all ties with his family.

Carey Mulligan as Sissy Sullivan.
While hosting his sister, he is unable to live the life that he needs in order to feed his addiction, and he doesn't handle it well.

As the film progresses, Brandon experiences a number of incidents that force him to confront his addiction -- each more severe than the next. It almost becomes painful to watch the things that Brandon does, not necessarily by choice, but out of need.

The film contains an abundance of nudity (mostly female, but some male as well), and even more explicit and sexual language, which makes it understandable that the film received an NC-17 rating. But McQueen, who wrote the script with Abi Morgan, and with the help of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, presents the material tastefully and even artistically. Even during some of the sex scenes, the colors are so vivid that it feels like we're looking at a painting.

Shame is as clear cut a drama as you can possibly get. However, uniquely, the drama isn't between two or more people, but one. Fassbender, who worked with McQueen in his 2008 film, Hunger, plays the part brilliantly, portraying the internal struggle that lies within his character. At times, his addiction makes him feel on top of the world, but more often, it elicits a very different feeling -- one of shame.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Easy Rider (1969)

In his autobiography, Peter Fonda had this to say about the movie in which he co-starred and co-wrote; "There are so many people around the world who come up to me and tell me that Easy Rider changed their lives. Most of the long-distance riders I meet tell me that I started the whole thing. I didn't start it at all. I just put it on film."

Dennis Hopper directed the iconic picture, and also served as co-star and co-writer, along with Terry Southern, who also helped write the script with the two men. The film, released at the close of the 1960s, captured the liberation and independence that the decade represented.

Normally this may be the point of the review where I introduce the setting, but Easy Rider is a road movie, and the setting is the pavement. Fonda plays Wyatt, and Hopper plays Billy, two drug-slinging hippies who are making their way towards Mardi Gras "in search of America." It seems like five minutes never pass without seeing a glimpse of the two riding down the road on their Harley Davidsons.

The context of the film doesn't really need to be described. It's the 1960s, and we all already know about hippies, we know about Woodstock, and we know about drugs. Many who read this may not have lived during this period, but we've heard this time period discussed enough by our elders. Thus, Easy Rider will no doubt have a nostalgic feel to those who experience this period firsthand.

Wyatt and Billy are close friends in the film, which goes without saying if they are willing to travel hundreds of miles together. However, their personalities are fairly different. Wyatt is as easy-going and accepting as they come, and often plays as a calming influence over Billy, who can easily become emotional and belligerent. The two travel light; aside from their Harleys, they have the clothes on their back, including their leather jackets, and plenty of herbal sustenance -- and no, I do not mean green tea.

The two don't sleep in hotels. This the 60s, they start a fire and kip on the grass when it gets too dark. But along the way, they meet some friends. At one point they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) and drive him to his commune, where they stay for a while with their new friend and his hippie comrades.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider
Later, after getting arrested for "parading without a permit," the two share a cell with a lawyer named George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson, who gained acclaim playing intense and somewhat crazy characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Shining, instead portrays a very cool, composed, eloquent and intelligent southerner. However, his one flaw is that he's a drunk. Nonetheless, he agrees to accompany Wyatt and Billy on their quest to Mardi Gras, and for the short period he is in the film, he steals the show. Working as yet another foil to Wyatt and Billy, there is a humorous scene when he experiments with marijuana for the first time. You can easily sense his trepidation and concern in taking the druh, when he is already such an alcoholic, but of course he relents.

But the film isn't just about psychedelia and liberation. It is also about intolerance. As the trio near Mardi Gras, and are in the deep south, they stop to eat in a small rural Louisiana restaurant for replenishment. As they sit there, with their ragged appearance and unkempt hairstyles, they are heavily judged by the locals, who don't make much of an effort to keep their voices down. After a very uncomfortable few minutes where many unpleasantries are muttered from the locals, the men decide that it's best to get up and leave.

The scene exemplifies the cultural differences during this time period, and portrays to the viewer that this independent and free-wheeling lifestyle was not universally accepted by any means.

Jack Nicholson as George Hanson
The men do finally reach Mardi Gras, and the ending of the film -- in two separate scenes -- has a significant impact on the overall message of the film. Of course, I'll let the viewer figure out for themselves, but I will say this: Though the movie undoubtedly glorifies the 1960s feel of liberation and experimentation, it also tries to dispel the notion that it's all fun and games. Like any lifestyle, it's not about simply doing it, but it's about actually finding some meaning through your actions and behavior. And that is what these two men are truly seeking. Mardi Gras may be their destination, but it's really something else that they are looking for.

The soundtrack is also something to behold. With music from The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and the Byrds, the movie really went all out to capture the culture of its era, and did so by employing some of the biggest and recognizable names not only of its time, but in the history of music. For any fans of classic rock, the soundtrack alone makes this film worth seeing.

Easy Rider has since become a cultural staple, and a leading pioneer of the roadie lifestyle, and deservedly so. However, as Fonda said, it wasn't his movie that started it, it was already happening it. He just put it on film for the world to see.

~ Review by Ddubbs