Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part IV

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011) -- B+

Surfaces and depths become indistinguishable from one another in Lynne Ramsay's most provocative film to date - We Need To Talk About Kevin emits a suffocating, claustrophobic intensity throughout, even though there's nary a sequence that seeks to exploit the central quandary - what compelled Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller) to go on a high school killing spree and, more intricately, what blame is felt by his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton)? Ramsay slyly goes a tongue-in-cheek route to these issues, suggesting Kevin as a Damien-esque monster, not a kind, empathetic bone in his body, though grounding both his utter indifference (Kevin collects computer viruses for fun, "for no reason,") and piercing perception (a scene where he predicts every word Eva plans to say over dinner is of particular note) as a demonstration of societal disconnect and savvy. He knows what people desire, their weaknesses and emotion, but feels none of it himself. He is not evil, so much as empty. When asked at the end of the film why he committed such a heinous act, he says: "I used to think I knew, but now I'm not sure anymore." In a sense, Kevin is Ramsay's built in defense for her own film, based on the bestselling novel by Lionel Shiver, since every potential rebuttal to his portrayal, to psychoanalyze him, must run head-on into the fact that any reason, suggestion, is arbitrary in that it cannot achieve a universally affirmative causation for moral breakdown and absence. Ramsay tells the story more sensory than causal too, refracting memory, color, sight, and sound through Eva's broken, post-homicide body - pale, sickly, abject. Ramsay's craft convincingly constructs Eva's subjective disembodiment, if less so Kevin's social environment (Ramsay refuses to provide any context outside of the home). A kindred spirit to this year's Martha Marcy May Marlene and, more obviously, Elephant, Ramsay's film is more to be felt than examined, since it sees psychopathology much like a dog chasing its own tail.

My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011) -- B-

My Week With Marilyn epitomizes a cinematic trifle, but director Simon Curtis deserves credit for making it a breezy, handsome, and generally mawkish-free one. It's no surprise from Curtis's filmmography (which consists solely of British television enterprises) that he relies primarily on actors over affect to propel the based-on-a-true-story account of aspiring filmmaker Colin's (Eddie Redmayne) stint on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, with a chauvinist Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) directing and starring alongside a distraught, confused Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), whose erratic behavior (and new-found interest in Colin) puts the production in jeopardy. Curtis has little vision beyond star-gazing, fascination and small moments of human empathy, and he keeps the film on a rather general plane of cadence and progression. Fortunately for him, Williams's bravura turn, which is neither showy, imitative or histrionic, but carefully managed and subtle, keeps the wheels chugging with enough energy and goodwill, that gusto marginally prevails over the lacking gall to attempt anything a bit more irreverent.

Le Quattro Volte (Michaelangelo Frammartino, 2011) -- C

Precious idiosyncrasia, through and through, Le Quattro Volte, Michaelangelo Frammartino's second feature film, writhes in its dulled, pastoral sentimentality, rejecting any sort of piquant, eclectic sensibilities (absolutely stagnant mise-en-scene). Conveying birth and life through stillness flaunts mere contradiction and engages esoteric artistry of the worst sort. Shame on critics for falling over this nostalgia-porn drivel.

Poetry (Lee Chang-Dong, 2011) -- B+

Lee Chang-Dong makes sprawling, expansive films about individuals grappling and seeking meaning at various stages in their lives. His films are about duration, temporal, geographical motifs abounding, in Poetry seen through the deteriorating health of Mija (Jeong-hie Yun), whose early onset Alzheimer's symptoms compel her to join a poetry class, to reclaim her individuality. Far from the soapy smile-and-cry hokum a brief synopsis may suggest, Chang-Dong uses Mija's condition to address numerous other issues, among them the intrusion of technology within youth culture, which deteriorates emotive expression just as much as Mija's memory loss. Micro and macro intersect, one of many subtle, intelligent moves made by Chang-Dong's steady, mature directorial hands.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2011) -- B+

An instant-classic of sorts (though that certainly depends on who you're asking), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (I'll stick with Joe) latest patience tester returns him to Tropical Malady form, engaging another Thai folk legend as the central conceit for family strife - this time, red eyed, furry creatures who allegorize the dieing recollections of Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), which, in turn, gives the film a highly episodic nature, each development more bizarre, fascinating, and worthwhile than the last. Elliptical and meditative, there is an essence, an evocation consistently present, attaining intimation through suggestion rather than direct or obvious statements, which keeps the family dynamics unstable, the filmmaking responsive.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part III

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011) -- B-

Everybody moves West in Meek's Cutoff, except for director Kelly Reichardt, who takes a slight step South with this handsome, rigidly composed, but textually hollow meditation on Manifest Destiny gone awry, primarily through a hackneyed opposition of nature and nurture, patriarchy lost amidst moral absence, all before the horizon dissolves as the Native-American walks into the sunset. Nothing about Reichardt is obvious or overtly dramatized for easy digestion - instead, she goes the other way, sharing similarities with Steve McQueen, portending significance without ever arriving there, the static takes, somber surroundings only sporadically effective, and generally aesthetically stagnant. Reichardt directs actors well, getting particularly strong turns from Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams, but little congeals beyond momentary relevance; like McQueen, Reichardt is verging on self-righteous artistry, deaf to criticism, and tunnel-visioned.

Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011) -- B

While not the purely joyous adolescent romp that Adventureland was, Greg Mottola solidifies his comedic worth and presence with Paul, one of 2011 sharpest and most consistently amusing comedies, if only because the director and writers/stars Simon Pegg and Mick Frost have such a firm satirical grasp on pop cultural worship, here of that particularly geeky variety - sci-fi fans. Though mixing metaphors and tones galore, there remains a persistent recognition (and reverence) of irrational cultural obsession, without becoming overtly precious or outwardly cynical. Pegg and Frost avoid ironic detachment by sincerely engaging with not just their characters (sure, these are caricatures, but imbued with humanity by Mottola and cast), but the hilariously hostile oppositional rhetoric that facilitates cultural disintegration, epitomized no better than the film's best visual gag, a t-shirt worn by Kristen Wiig's dogmatic evangelical, that's too hilarious to spoil here.

Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011) -- B

David Gordon Green, in an ironic turn, is now making better films in Hollywood than his last independent efforts (Snow Angels being the most laughable, egregious offender). Pineapple Express and, especially, Your Highness, display the sort of absurdist impulses missing from contemporary comedies. Predicated on being a "stoner comedy," Green approaches the inherently juvenile material with an appropriate degree of irony and sincerity, not outright castigating The Lord of the Rings films for their silly, mistaken sense of importance and relevance (the most overrated films of the past few decades), but fusing contemporary vulgarity and adolescent culture, aligning their sensibilities. It's a deft move, one which seems to go unnoticed by the bland taste-buds of most critics.

The Future (Miranda July, 2011) -- C

Ah, the hip. Little is more insufferable than deliberate idiosyncrasy - except when it's made precious. Alas, such is the case with Miranda July's latest, infused with solipsistic glum to spare, so forcefully preaching difference and individualism (but with mumblecore detachment), that the incongruities begin to overwhelm, and it becomes nearly impossible to stay tuned in. Nevertheless, there's an undeniable charm and effervescence in July's sense of humor (one should suspect much of this is meant to be ironic/satirical), but slathered in Indie cliches and epitomizing some of the worst Sundance-stamped characteristics, The Future renders itself immediately obsolete.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Reincarnation (Jennifer Fox, 2011) -- B+

My Reincarnation, a new documentary from director Jennifer Fox, is culturally specific, yet universally drawn - no easy task, but Fox's steady, affectionate reveal of the tumultuous generation gap between Tibetan Buddhist leader Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his Western-born son Yeshi manages to locate such a balance. Norbu believes Yeshi to be the reincarnation of his uncle, a revered Buddhist master and, naturally, wishes him follow his footsteps. Nevertheless, Yeshi prefers the arts and education ("I want to be a photographer and play music"). While Fox spends much time following Norbu's public speeches, which have attained an almost celebrity status within the Buddhist community, the film primarily remains concerned with the relationship between father/son and their reuniting as Norbu, now 70, is dying of cancer.

The most impressive aspects of My Reincarnation are its specificity of tone, insight, and focus. At a mere 82 minutes, Fox juggles various interests, but ultimately is most concerned with parsing through each man's inclinations - Norbu's being a complex sense of duty, honor, and heritage for Yeshi's subsequent path, but Yeshi, essentially a full-blooded, middle-class secularist (in other words, of his society), seeks a path of education and individual betterment, diverging the two from one another. Fox rarely lets the material go astray and, seeing that she has been following her subjects for nearly 20 years, it's no surprise that My Reincarnation avoids simplistic moralizing or sentimental moments. Far from seeking easy pathos, Fox allows her subjects to do the talking - the best kind of documentarian - and instead of forcing her feature's relevance or significance, in turn, allows humanity and familial struggle (never precious) to convincingly achieve these ends.

My Reincarnation will play @ Roxie Theater in San Francisco from Friday, December 23rd - Thursday, December 29th.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part II

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) -- B-

Though a considerable stylistic improvement over the Swedish adaptation (the opening credit sequence, in terms of virtuoso thrill, is something of an instant classic), David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo merely plows through Stieg Larsson's lurid material with little distinct vantage point or insight, playing things at a sprinter's pace, rarely slowing down to even absorb ambiance and aura (a club sequence lasts less than 30 seconds, as does most every scene), much less any sense of character, feeling, and significance. As a 158 minute, break-neck bubble gum rush, Fincher delivers the goods, but his career should have progressed beyond this sort of exercise, especially if he's going to be so transparent in his textual apathy. Rooney Mara deserves kudos, however, for potentially the year's best lead performance.

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011) -- C-

As forcefully puerile as they come, Zack Snyder continues to display his visual flair amidst narratives suited only for 10-year-old boys who don't know any better or cultural schizophrenics who relish utter annihilation of context, significance, and sincerity. There's no one to blame here but Snyder, whose writer/director/producer credits fully reveal his true interests: comprehensive fetishization, be it computer animated Nazi guards or a pack of skirt-wearing, weapon-wielding heroines, whose "dance" is revealed in an insufferable series of action set-pieces, each more muddled, meaningless, and indistinct than the last. Snyder likes it loud, be it images or sound, and though stretches (say, 10-15 seconds) of the film achieve their giddy ends, on the whole, it's less pure cinema than cultural enema.

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2011) -- B

Striking a balance between cosmic inquiry and human proclivity is never an easy task, but Patricio Guzmán generally (and, at times, gorgeously) locates such an even keel in Nostalgia for the Light, which pits the filmmaker's existential questions amidst the recovery of murdered Chilean civilians during Pinochet's reign. The film's overall metaphor of illumination, be it the unknown or the past, searingly functions to hybridize his intentions and solidifying that human loss and strife will always (or should) supersede theoretical and/or theological anxieties.

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) -- C

Stagnant, slogging, and generally flat-footed, writer/director J.C. Chandor views 2008's financial meltdown from the Wall Street genesis, over the course of a single day, attempting to show just how cold, calculating, and uneventful malice and greed can be. In that sense, his film succeeds, but his ends are rather obvious to begin with and, outside of serving as an admirable ensemble showcase, featuring the likes of Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, and Stanley Tucci, the tone and aesthetic resemble an HBO production more than a nuanced, feature film.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part I

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011) -- B+

Young Adult corrects Diablo Cody's Juno sins, with a shift in emphasis, away from solipsistic smart-assery and towards a more thoroughly satiric, but genuine examination of generational anxiety, of a distinctly feminine variety. By integrating not just more-obvious allusions to reality-TV image-making, but implicitly condemning the malpractice that goes into forced cultural construction, Cody and director Jason Reitman excavate the crux of both contemporary malaise and displacement.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011) -- C+

Let's admit it: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is essentially just a white-collar version of Fast Five, decking-out the franchise with several rousing set-pieces (especially in IMAX), but with very little interest whatsoever in rooting any of the proceedings in a genuine sense of the social, real, or global. Though fashioning a globe-trotting plot, there's a thoroughly feigned sense of awareness, since there are essentially nothing but archetypal characters, with the same sexist, racist, and homophobic baggage that generally accompanies the genre. Moreover, the underlying mold longs for a simpler, more conservative era, where baddies were international stoics rather than domestic threats - but what MI:4 forgets, is that the genre's best entries, from any era, are rooted not in a puerile sense of the fantastic, but a piercing, allegorical fascination with the political, dispersed through character.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011) -- B

Herzog has rarely been so patient and straightforward - Into the Abyss seeks not to neatly place polemics or problematize morality through outside testimonial. Concerned only with individuals close to the Texas case involving a triple homicide, which sent one killer to death row and left the other with a life sentence, Herzog hurtles ahead with more of a reporter's eye than a documentarian's, at least, without the usually elliptical insight that imbues much of his work by taking the micro and turning it grandiose (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Grizzly Man). Here, the pathos come less from Herzog than his subjects - meaning, by establishing a de facto testimonial presentation, pain and emotion come from subjects grieving over the death of loved ones, lamenting their situations, and coming to little nuance other than the lingering sting. None of this is to say Into the Abyss isn't riveting at times in its small revelations of permanent loss and essence - but it plays like a hop-and-a-skip work for Herzog.

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) -- A-

I was certain it would happen someday. A filmmakers has finally made a contemporary, near-equivalent to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 - that someone being Joe Cornish, whose writer/director debut amicably demonstrates his flair for minimalist depth, utilizing the cinematic medium nearly as centrally as he places genuinely emotive characters, whose camaraderie is rooted within a discernible sense of the social real, but tinged with a proclivity for genre archetypes. Even sharper, using teenagers who're dropped into an adult narrative, Cornish deftly negotiates a terrain between Goonies-like adolescent bait and hard-edged affect, stylish and genuine.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011) -- B+

Andrew Naigh one-ups Mike Mills and Woody Allen by insisting on keeping his love-affair romance grounded and wholly tangible, without losing a canny aesthetic emphasis, aligning Naigh's film with the Nouvelle Vague in the most direct way - not just through form, but genuinely entwined, inseparable in that text and form are not merely complimentary or arbitrary, but necessary. There's no gimmick or amplification in terms of textual pretension and, thus, Naigh is able to stay above the line of Indie-bloated preciousness, without insisting his two-guys-talking narrative has added significance. Perhaps Steve McQueen could also take a note or two.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011) -- C+

Having never seen a single episode of The Muppet Show, I am likely not the best person to critique a film featuring the same characters, many of whom I am unfamiliar with. In fact, I grew up with The Muppet Christmas Carol more than any other Muppet affair and, thus, when Kermit the Frog first appears in The Muppets, I half wanted to call him Bob Cratchit. Little of any said prior knowledge ultimately seems to matter, however, since writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller essentially begin tabula rasa, with a new Muppet named Walter and brother Gary (Segel), the pair setting off for Los Angeles with Gary's squeeze Mary (Amy Adams) to both see the Muppet's old studio and celebrate the couple's tenth anniversary. Of course, the film reintroduces many old faces, inserts countless cameos, and proceeds with an admirable degree of zest and self-awareness, if the latter becomes slightly grating. Nevertheless, amidst all of the singing, dancing, and charm, lies a greater sense of requisite commercialism, particularly in the film's inherent plea to rekindle old (consumerist) flames. Add another nostalgia piece to a seemingly endless 2011 laundry list, though The Muppets is by no means the most despicable offender, if only because its effervescent satirical impulses often eradicate the unspoken glamorization of branding. However, in one of the lamest decisions of the year, Disney chooses to insert a billboard not once, but twice, for Cars 2, as to coincide with that film's DVD/Blu-Ray release a little over a month ago. The well-oiled merchandising machine steadily chugs along and just like with nearly any Pixar entry (ironically, excluding Cars 2), the culture appears to abide. Let's look at it like this; Disney releases Tron: Legacy last fall, their first piece in reconstructing their attempted retrograde puzzle - they are out to literally make the old new again, with the post-conversion 3D of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. The Lion King 3D already raked in close to $100M, and now The Muppets comes along as further primer, to solidify the (false) need, the desire for "old friends," as Kermit puts it. Were Disney not planning to re-sell their products to susceptible children/consumers, the underlying message would simply be capitalist. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, knowing what Disney has coming down the line, The Muppets becomes deceptive and disingenuous, regardless that Segel worked on the film for a reputed four years. These intentions don't matter when they are subsumed. No one escapes the jaws of string-pulling authoritarianism - not even The Muppets.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) -- D

Midway through The Artist, restless, perturbed, and realizing Michel Hazanavicuis' multiple-count offender had no chance whatsoever of redeeming itself in the second half, I reached into my pocket to retrieve a pack of cigarettes, following the lead of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose fledgling career has just been cemented by the flop of his latest, big-budget silent film (talkies are in full-swing, leaving poor George to sit, sulk, and drink). Pouring his shot of scotch onto the table and taking a drag off his smoke, Hazanavicius neatly, literally frames the shot as a perfect mirror image, doubling, certainly to reflect the forsaken actor's fractured state; it's a move that would still be obvious regardless of the circumstances, but seeing how Hazanavicius takes every opportunity possible to neatly situate and explicate his insufferable homage (?) to silent cinema, the moment plays far more requisite than intimate. Now, back to that desired cigarette. The Artist sees life, art, and cultural significance in the most reductive of terms. It harbors nostalgia in droves, precious to the very end in its desired replication of the past, culling cutesy effrontery from nearly every scene, and neglecting to revise almost anything (aside from a dream sequence that's nothing more than bubblegum surrealism). As such, one gets the sense Hazanavicius believes it is 1929 or, even worse yet, wishes it were. Meaning, in the thrust of his icky sentimentality, how could one not wish to light up that cigarette, to dissolve into the grain of the film, to reject contemporary relevance and become lost in a world devoid of consequence, meaning, and time? In other words, a vacuum, a black hole, perhaps even, a heaven. At least, these are one's desires if they succumb to his cultural handicaps.

Heaven apparently can't wait for Hazanavicius, who should take any and all scathing criticism his innocuous, petty, puerile film deserves. The Artist is for those who wish to slide back into a place of pacification, a milieu that values (or more appropriately, valorizes) regression as a means of grappling with hard times, rather than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. In other words - reassurance over reification. Much like last year's The King's Speech, Hazanavicius views history not with a critical eye (and certainly not an artistic one, as his title oafishly alludes), but as sentimental fodder for one man's ultimate triumph over hardship via a circle of caring, compassionate people. While The King's Speech is far more egregious in its flippant disregard for sanguinely shifting historical discourse, The Artist might be equally detrimental in its condensed explanation of cinematic desire (made even more grating by its literal, meta elements). A silent film about a silent film star? Even Chaplin never went that far. Moreover, there's nary a single satirical angle to any of Hazanavicius' executions, almost as brazenly ignorant as Steven Soderbergh's epic failure, The Good German. Here we have the converse of movie love - its incessant tainting by solipsistic filmmakers.

Parsing through the faults of The Artist, even just in terms of narrative, is almost too easy. But go ahead, give it a go: take a few minutes, write down what you think is likely to happen in the film from this set-up, at least, what would be the least offensive, most middlebrow road to take (think in terms of form and content): *It's 1928. Valentin is on top of the world. His latest film is a massive success. He's the biggest star in the world. Everyone loves him. Posing for a photo, clumsy aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) accidentally bumps into Valentin! Their moment together is captured on the cover of Variety (rancid Hollywood masturbation from Hazanavicius), leading to nationwide speculation as to whom the mystery girl might be. Scoring a series of roles and ultimately attaining leading lady status, Miller's rise peaks right at the introduction of sound.* Now, suppose you were asked to fill in the blanks following, as to hit the most obvious beats. Would Valentin be apprehensive about the introduction of sound? Yes. Would Miller, in turn, fully embrace it and become the biggest star in the world? Yes. Would Valentin blow every dime he has independently financing a big-budget jungle movie of his own? Yes. Will his wife leave him? Yes. Will Miller talk shit about Valentin, only to find out he's sitting right behind her? Yes. Will Valentin have to sell off his entire estate? Yes. Will he drudge out nitrate prints of his earlier films and watch them alone? Yes. Will, in a drunken anger, he set fire to those very prints? Yes. Will he almost be killed in the fire trying to save a single print that has sentimental value for him? Yes. Will Miller reach out to him, feeling guilty for his current state? Yes. Will Valentin realize that Peppy actually purchased all of his shit at auction, out of said guilt? Yes. Will Valentin become even more depressed, and stick a pistol in his mouth? Yes. Will Miller make a mad dash to save him? Yes. Will there be title card asserting ambiguity as to whether or not Valentin actually killed himself? Yes. Will Valentin actually kill himself? No. Will Miller's presence be the saving grace? Yes. Will Miller and Valentin ultimately team-up, at film's end, to become an Astaire & Rogers dancing duo? Yes. Oh yeah, and throughout all of this, will there be a cute dog that does tricks, rescues his owner, and generally looks adorable? Of-fucking-course there will be!

Now, take a look at our script. Pretty bad, eh? Pretty...lame, yes? Lame, in the truest sense of the word: crippled, impaired, disabled. In essence - deficient. Uninteresting. Yet, these are the very plot points The Artist functions with and, to my and any half-conscious thinker's chagrin, without even a hint of suggestivity to something larger, or even, something else...at all. In fact, Hazanavicius is one of few directors that come to mind who unblinkingly sees imitation, pure homage, as true expression - he seeks to make a silent film as if it were the late twenty's, with no more cultural, industrial, or aesthetic awareness than any placating melodrama from the 1950's, when untroubled escapism reigned. Problem is, as with nearly all escapism, this is not an escape from, but an escape to, an inherent devolution of cinematic totality, the reversal of artistic progress made by a filmmaker like Guy Maddin. There's no pain here; not even the slightest hint of real suffering. Silent cinema enables empathy and, when at its best, with films like The Last Laugh and The Passion of Joan of Arc, boils human compassion down to a discernible essence, which wields a power the spoken word lacks. The Artist is content to trample any of these self-evident images with its hackneyed, deplorable case of mistaken decency - it's one of the least compassionate films of the year, if you can see through its inches of goup, slop, and subterfuge.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) -- B

There's an undeniable emptiness in Steve McQueen's Shame, something the viewer is consistently forced to reconcile throughout, to attribute the said lacking to an overall sense of ennui/malaise, or textual flatness and, potentially, triteness. It's easy to see how one would fall on either side; McQueen privileges the long take, whether tracking or stable (as he did in his near-masterpiece Hunger) and in doing so, inherently valorizes a degree of detachment, an absence of interference or manipulation, imbuing the proceedings with a greater sense of verisimilitude, neo-realist in its desire to depict social zeitgeists. Fair enough, but unlike the greatest filmmakers of this sort (Rossellini, Olmi, Burnett, Clark), McQueen lacks any perceptual end or, perhaps better stated, context. Certainly, set in contemporary New York City, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) works a vaguely defined finance job (visions of Patrick Bateman are inevitable), outwardly attached, driven, and committed, but harboring an overall dissatisfaction, momentarily assuaged by recurring sexual endeavors, some with prostitutes, random women, men, and, in Brandon's hope for salvation, a woman named Marianne (Nicole Beharie) from his work place. These issues become further problematized by the arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his sister from Los Angeles. While the markers of social meaning and significance are present, there's very little actually implemented to instill a sense of cultural specificity or ethnicity into the proceedings (Brandon claims he moved to New York from Ireland when he was a teen, but it's merely part of the film's simultaneous lip service and stubborn denial to commit to any statements, whatsoever). It's not surprising to learn McQueen originally planned to set the film in London, only changing his mind after budgetary reasons forced his hand.

Nevertheless, this lack of definition does not prohibit McQueen from successfully probing what seemingly drives his interest in the material: displacement. In terms of this key conceptual anchor, McQueen masterfully uses Brandon's spaces (home, work, streets, bars) to formally suggest circuity, rather than simply through text, (the film's script by McQueen and Abi Morgan is surprisingly structured, at least in terms of action). The opening sequence (along with a later sequence in which Brandon hits rock bottom) rivetingly display McQueen's flair for composition, montage, and suggestivity. I might even go so far as to say without these virtuoso structures, Shame would unquestionably succumb to a totalizing ambiguity (and, thus, shallowness) that unfortunately characterizes much of the film. In fact, there are moments when McQueen is so obtuse, unwilling to insert any form of meaning into his sequences, that the film flirts dangerously close with becoming inert. McQueen may be close, himself, to becoming that sort of ugly director, so enamored with his own brilliance and artistry, that he forgets to, or is incapable of, communicating significance. Every scene of Shame feels as if it should be more significant than it is (sans the two sequences previously mentioned). They are marvelous, breathtaking, and artful incarnations of personifying longing and fear, the two inextricably intertwined. Then there's stunningly bad scenes, mostly involving Mulligan's character, as when she risibly performs the entirety of "New York, New York" in almost unbroken close-up or Brandon's race home to find Sissy with her wrists-cut in his bathroom. All of the brooding, all of the sporadically convincing artistry, is supported by very little textual conviction and, even worse, a sense that McQueen is playing dress-up, unable to locate the crux in any of his characters, which might inevitably be his point, but becomes beside the point once his point fails to impart distinguishable social significance or, dare I say, pathos.