Shame

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If you were talking about Steve McQueen five years ago, it was probably about Bullitt jumping over Nazi barricades on a motorcycle and stealing art from museums. Either that, or you were plugged into the museum scene and had an eye for experimental short films. While you were failing to stop Thomas Crown from pilfering priceless work, you were discovering a new Steve McQueen. The rest of us had to wait until 2008. In the past five years, the new McQueen has translated two decades of success within docent-tinged walls into indie film domination and, now, mainstream emergence without compromise. That’s a simmering, meteoric rise into a cultural place that few filmmakers ever go. The new McQueen was born a year after the old McQueen became Crown and Bullitt, but in a small amount of time, he’s solidified himself as a cinematic voice to take very, very seriously. In other words, if you’re talking about Steve McQueen today, there’s an odds on chance that you’re dissecting Shame or Hunger or 12 Years a Slave.

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blueiswarm

Ever since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color has been creating a ton of buzz in the film world, which should be pretty understandable—it did win the biggest award that Cannes gives out, after all. But the reason the film’s buzz has been a little bit annoying is that it’s not generally stemming from the quality of its performances or the raw emotion put on display by the young love it takes on as its focus, it’s stemming from the lengthy and explicit lesbian sex scenes that get peppered throughout its run time. It turns out lesbian sex is still the sort of thing that gets people’s attention. Not only has there been debate as to whether or not Kechiche exploited his two lead actresses and forced them into performing acts that they weren’t comfortable with, but there also seems to be a debate raging as to whether or not the love scenes shared by the two girls should be viewed as pornographic and labeled appropriately so more uptight consumers know for sure what to boycott. Those heady sorts of debates are the complex yet still subjective ones that could rage on for an eternity though, so probably we don’t need to add any verbal fuel to their fire here. Instead, let’s focus on a new debate that has sprung up around these controversial sex scenes—the one that questions whether they’re even realistic enough to be worthy of […]

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Lightning McQueen

“Six Degrees of Separation meets Shame.” Sounds like a decent idea, no? A few high society hijinks here, a touch of devastating emotional trauma there, and all wrapped up in a fancy New York-tinted bow. The only thing better would be if you could somehow include Shame director Steve McQueen in the process. Conveniently enough, that’s exactly what’s happening over at HBO. McQueen has assembled a motley crew that includes hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Matthew Michael Carnahan (co-writer of World War Z) and a handful of The King‘s Speech producers for a TV drama described as “Six Degrees of Separation meets Shame.” According to Deadline, the project is “an exploration of a young African-American man’s experience entering New York high society, with a past that may not be what it seems.” McQueen will direct and will share writing duties with Carnahan.

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Watching Hunger for the first time is not an experience that I’ll soon forget. British video artist-turned-director Steve McQueen imbued this vision of the 1981 IRA hunger strike with such a potent visceral sense, with such a rich and detailed tapestry of sound and image, that watching it is truly a corporeal endurance test of stark immediacy. McQueen’s approach didn’t require traditional methods of character identification and narrative pathos – he simply used the reality of shared flesh and blood to connect the viewer with the events depicted onscreen. The result of McQueen’s efforts carries a profoundly haunting, disturbing, and ultimately revealing insight into the politics of the body, told through a symphony of blood, shit, and urine. McQueen’s latest reportedly doesn’t pull its punches. I have yet to see Twelve Years a Slave, but it is hardly surprising that an artist whose life of work has been so invested in exploring the human body’s use as a device for subjugation, domination, and othering has created such an affecting vision of the horrors of American slavery and institutionalized racism. While Twelve Years a Slave is by most accounts McQueen’s most “accessible” work to date, he doesn’t seem to have lost the touch that made his museum-based work so unique during his quick rise in mainstream critical consensus. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from not that Steve McQueen.

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This Week in DVD

Welcome back to This Week In DVD! You should already have the fourth Mission: Impossible film on pre-order, and other titles out this week include the very funny Bob’s Burgers, a quartet of sexy nurse movies from Roger Corman, the second season of HBO’s Treme and more. As always, if you see something you like, click on the image to buy it. Shame Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seems to have it all, at least on the outside. He has a high-paying job, a great Manhattan apartment and a life filled with beautiful women. That last one isn’t as fun as it sounds though as the arrival of his little sister (Carey Mulligan) pulls the lid back on his uncontrollable obsession with sex and reveals a man who loathes himself. It’s probably the most depressing, sex-filled movie you’ve seen in some time, but Fassbender’s performance is also one of the bravest. Steve McQueen’s film turns what could have been an unsympathetic condition into a mix of the pitiful and heartbreaking. Powerful, uncompromising performances and filmmaking.

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Culture Warrior

Ambiguity is no stranger to the arthouse film. Over fifty years after a group of daytrippers never found their lost shipmate in Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the ambiguous ending still retains the power to frustrate, confuse, anger, and challenge viewers. Continued controversies over ambiguity in narrative films point to Hollywood’s enduring dominance over the notion that films must be coherent and contain closure. However, the convention of closure can be a maddening limitation for filmmakers who intend to ask questions with no easy answers, or pose problems with no clear solutions (assuming that such answers or solutions exist in the first place). But ambiguity can take on a variety of forms, and with different degrees of effectiveness. Sometimes a film’s ambiguous hole can be more fulfilling and thought-provoking than any convention of linear causality in its place, but at other points ambiguity can become a handicap, or a gap that simply feels like a gap. Here are a few films from the past year that engage in several modes of intended ambiguity.

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Culture Warrior

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Young Adult, Shame, and The Descendants. 2011’s holiday movie season ended the year with a barrage of relatively conventional heroes. From Ethan Hunt saving the world from yet another MacGuffin to Sherlock Holmes solving an additional mystery to a cyberpunk and a journalist battling wealthy Swedish career-misogynist neo-Nazis, December was packed with varied iterations of good triumphing over its clearly delineated evil opposition. In contrast, the holiday season’s slate of smaller-scale filmmaking brought forth several protagonists who function in strict contrast to your conventional hero. These protagonists are (decidedly) so toxic, broken, unheroic, and even unlikeable that they can’t even be deemed antiheroes. These characters (to varying degrees of success) challenge the assumed connection that filmic convention makes between the “main character” and the “film itself” by presenting protagonists who don’t triumph over adversity, who don’t fight or win a “good” battle, and who frankly don’t warrant an act of rooting. These protagonists trip up an oft-unquestioned notion conditioned by cinematic tradition: that films should serve as a means of rooting for a clearly demarcated, pre-telegraphed, unassailable idea of goodness. These are three protagonists that we aren’t often asked to spend ninety minutes with.

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The Best Movie Posters of 2011

Movie posters can rise to level of works of art, can be tame or daring. They are of course advertising. A good poster makes you want to know more about the movie and the more you want to know the more you’ll want to spend your money to see the film. With that in mind, we’ve assembled our favorites of 2011, broken down into fancy categories for your reading and viewing pleasure.

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As we all sit here at Reject HQ, gathered around an absurdly long, but incredibly imposing, table discussing what to do with the nuclear missiles we just “creatively appropriated” from a breakaway Russian republic, it occurs to us that 2011 was a great year to be bad. For every boring, dopey, goody-good hero that popped up on the silver screen, there was a brilliant, super cool, woefully misunderstood villain doing everything he/she/it could to thwart the zero hero at every turn. So when Supreme Commander #1, better known to the world (and those pesky Avengers so they’ll stop blasting our lair) as Neil Miller, issued an official order (delivered by a specially-trained, fire-breathing, gun-toting alligator who lives in the moat) to construct a supersonic death ray…that assignment went to Kate “Femme Fatale” Erbland. But then I got asked to do this list of the 20 Best Villains of 2011, a decided promotion from my usual position as sinister cocktail-fetcher and cleaner of the diabolical gutters.

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The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks

As you may have noticed, this final week of 2011 has been almost completely taken over by our third annual Year in Review. It was born in 2009 out of our love for lists and your thirst for reading, discussing and ultimately hating them. And each year the entire project gets a little bigger, a little bolder and slightly more absurd. With that in mind, I’m once again proud to present you with The Best Films of 2011: The Staff Picks. Each of our 14 regular staff writers, contributors and columnists, almost all of whom have been with us the entire year, were asked to present their top 5 films, in no particular order (although many of them placed their top film at the top, as logical people tend to do), each with an explanation. Some even included curse words as a bonus to you, the reader. Read: The Best Films of 2010: The Staff Picks | The Best Films of 2009: The Staff Picks Once again, the Staff Picks are a testament to the diversity we have here at Film School Rejects, with picks ranging from the likely suspects (Take Shelter, Hugo, Shame) to the slightly more nerdy (Attack the Block, Super 8, The Muppets) to several movies that may not yet be on your radar (see Landon Palmer’s list for those). And once again, it’s with a deep sense of pride that I publish such a list, the best of 2011 as seen through the eyes of the movie […]

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Culture Warrior

Usually I’m quite cynical about end-of-year lists, as they demand a forced encapsulation of an arbitrary block of time that is not yet over into something simplified. I typically find end-of-year lists fun, but rarely useful. But 2011 is different. As Scott Tobias pointed out, while “quiet,” this was a surprisingly strong year for interesting and risk-taking films. What’s most interesting has been the variety: barely anything has emerged as a leading contender that tops either critics’ lists or dominates awards buzz. Quite honestly, at the end of 2010 I struggled to find compelling topics, trends, and events to define the year in cinema. The final days of 2011 brought a quite opposite struggle, for this year’s surprising glut of interesting and disparate films spoke to one another in a way that makes it difficult to isolate any of the year’s significant works. Arguments in the critical community actually led to insightful points as they addressed essential questions of what it means to be a filmgoer and a cinephile. Mainstream Hollywood machine-work and limited release arthouse fare defied expectations in several directions. New stars arose. Tired Hollywood rituals and ostensibly reliable technologies both met new breaking points. “2011” hangs over this year in cinema, and the interaction between the films – and the events and conversations that surrounded them – makes this year’s offerings particular to their time and subject to their context. This is what I took away from this surprising year:

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Reel Sex

Last week we delved into the top layer of sexy films out this past year, suggesting that 2011 might have been one of the bolder years when it came to honest portrayals of sex in cinema. In 2011 we saw characters dealing with sexual violence, sexual addiction, and sexual curiosity, all in the most brutal and thoughtful ways possible. It’s years like this that we are reminded film is art that not only speaks to our souls, but also to our real life experiences while captivating us in intense and engaging 90+ minute periods. But as you’d expect for all the good we saw this year, there was also awkward, ridiculous, uncomfortable, and even maddening sexual depictions. We could spend the next four paragraphs discussing the “sharting” scene in Hall Pass or attack the universally despised wet dream that is Sucker Punch (despite how much I enjoy the latter film), however the really disgusting cinematic sexual moments this year actually said something about a film’s characters while making the audience squirm with disgust. While there are a few films I have yet to see before next Sunday ushers in the beginning of a new year, I have seen enough this year to offer up a varied selection of some of the worst sex moments in 2011.

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This year has given us films that have taken us to slightly darker places from living with sex addiction (Shame) to life within a cult (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice) to struggling with personal and sexual identity (The Beaver, Pariah), just to name a few. But even within these darker landscapes, these films have given us brilliant and captivating performances set against backgrounds and settings we may otherwise never experience. The music accompanying these various films help create their different tones and degrees of darkness from full soundtracks (as I looked into with Shame) to hardly any music at all in the stark and stripped down Sound of My Voice (I swear I’m starting a letter writing campaign to get this film released, like, yesterday). This week I wanted to call to attention a film that premiered back in January during the Sundance Film Festival and has stayed with me over the past twelve months – Pariah. The film tells the story of a young girl, Alike (Adepero Oduye), growing up in an environment that is repressing her true identity under the rule of strict mother Audrey (played with maddening intensity by Kim Wayans), passive father Arthur (Charles Parnell), apple of her mother’s eye sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), and seemingly understanding best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Alike wants to please her parents and fit in with her best friend, but it seems she has to deny who she truly is in order to do so.

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Reel Sex

If we assume the past twelve months in film reflect the time we’re living in now, then it would be easy to claim the year has been all about kinky sex and full-bodied sadness. Now, before you start preparing your arguments against my simple summation, let me clarify what I mean. On the surface the great films garnering attention (that masterpiece Jack and Jill aside) right now are in our consciousness more for the depiction of pretty people having crazy sex, rather than how the films are trying to expose the troubling nature and consequences of sex. Yes, we all know sex has consequences outside of disease and pregnancy, but the shear amount of filmmakers willing to show more than the grey, Hollywood sexual consequences (the above, plus violent Law and Order: SVU style stranger-rape) has been substantially small until this past year.

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Material similar to Shame, to break it down immaturely, could easily falter into emotion porn. With a story about a self-loathing sex addict, overwrought drama is easy to give into, even with the slightest lack of subtlety. This could be one of those films where characters are emotionally tortured for the sake of torture, one that revels in its characters problems.  Co-writer and director Steve McQueen, who is surely aware of the dramatic trickiness of Shame, takes a more sensitive and observant approach. McQueen uses his distant and precise framing to create the atmosphere and world Brandon’s created, not to draw attention to himself as a filmmaker. This, among many other topics, is what I recently discussed with the press tour-exhausted filmmaker. Here’s what Steve McQueen had to say about internal writing, powerful expressions, capturing beautiful butterflies, and why films can be important:

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This is it: the final month of the year, a.k.a. the month to shell out as much cash as you got at the theaters. December is always the best and worst movie-going time. There’s so many damn pictures hitting the screens, and it’s the time where everyone’s running around, trying to get things done before the New Year. It’s wonderful, annoying chaos. This December is different, though. In fact, it’s going to be about 100 times more chaotic. Folks, if you plan on seeing all of the good to the “this will be up for Oscars, kid!” movies this month, plan on forking out a lot of dough. This is unquestionably the strongest month for films this year. Without further ado, here are the ones to end the year on a great note with:

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This week, Fat Guy Kevin Carr walks around his apartment naked, rents out hookers of various shapes and sizes then tries to pick up married women on a subway. He figures if it’s good enough for Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame, then it’s good enough for anyone. Of course, this leads Kevin to spending most of the rest of the day weeping in his birthday suit. Shaking off the humiliation, he decides to take in some culture and give Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus a gander, being one of them Shakespeare pictures and all. Unfortunately, he never stops giggling about the name of the movie long enough to decipher all of the fancy Elizabethan language, and Kevin ends up weeping again, curled up naked in his shower.

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When it comes to director/screenwriter Steve McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s film about living a life of secrets (and what it does to those who carry them), much more is said with their characters’ actions than any of the words that pass through their lips. Even more so when it seems most of the words that are said are unreliable and laced with the feeling that they are not simply lies, but lies each are telling themselves. Shame shows us a complicated and layered world that is both enticing and chilling, begging the question – what kind of music would underscore and accompany these distinctive moments? A mix of score (by composer Harry Escott), piano concertos (as performed by Glenn Gould), jazz (John Coltrane and Chet Baker) and popular music (from Tom Tom Club, Blondie and Chic) come together to create a musical landscape that is both sexy and unsettling while also deeply sad, troubling, and (at times) terrifying. Escott begins the film with an almost mournful-sounding orchestration (aptly titled “Brandon”) as we focus in on our lead, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), lying in bed with a mix of emotions already playing across his face. The piece is driven by an unrelenting ticking which immediately gives you the sense that this is not a place of rest as we begin to realize Brandon’s addiction to nighttime rendezvous may not be the only thing keeping him awake. Brandon never seems able to rest or relax. If he is not out getting his sexual fix, […]

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Michael Fassbender in Shame

Years from now, cinephiles and film fans will likely remember the stipulations that brought Steve McQueen’s Shame to regular, film-going audiences after running through film festivals like some men go through women. McQueen himself reportedly told prospective buyers two things – it had to stay uncut (thus guaranteeing that fearful NC-17 rating) and they would have to push lead actor Michael Fassbender for recognition come awards season. The film has stayed uncut, and Fassbender won’t need a back cover For Your Consideration ad for viewers to recognize that he’s turned in the most brave (and bare) performance of the year. McQueen and Fassbender have reteamed for their second feature with Shame (following 2008’s Hunger, a similarly wrenching film that established both men as talents to watch), and the film only cements their bond and shared aesthetic – one that film fans should be eternally anxious to see more of. Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a handsome Manhattanite whose seemingly normal exterior shields his true self, one driven almost entirely by his out-of-control addiction to sex. McQueen approaches his subject in an almost clinical manner – using Sean Bobbitt‘s stunning cinematography to observe Brandon in his natural environment, as it were, a predator amongst prey. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious (and more and more unsettling) that Brandon is not “safe” around any woman. He leers at women on the subway, gets a touch too close physically to his own kin, manhandles a perfect stranger in a bar […]

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Shame

There has been a lot of talk about the sexual content in Steve McQueen’s upcoming drama about sexual addiction and bratty little sisters, Shame. How explicit does it get? Exactly how many seconds is Michael Fassbender’s wang on screen? What gets glossed over a lot, however, is that Shame has been stuck with an NC-17 rating not because it shows too many boobs and butts, but because of how dirty, creepy, and downright…well, shameful watching this movie is going to make you feel. This is a no frills, brutally honest look at sexual compulsion, and the explicit content it contains is much more likely to repulse than it is to titillate. There is nothing healthy about the way Shame portrays human sexuality. You wouldn’t know that from the newest red band trailer for the movie though. What we get here is an isolated scene from the film, where Fassbender’s character eyeball humps a redhead on the subway. His wolflike leering and her suggestive thigh shuffling are interrupted by brief bursts of images from all of the dirty, dirty sex that Fassbender has over the course of the film, and the effect of watching it all cut together is rather… well, exciting. Make no mistake, this trailer paints Shame as being a much more pleasingly erotic experience than it really is, and is in some ways misleading.

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