★★★ / ★★★★
On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.
sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed “sex, lies, and videotape,” written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, because it was able to deliver intimacy among characters that are extremely flawed and at times downright unlikable. Andie MacDowell (as the wife who is so uncomfortable about sex, she stops having sex with her husband), Peter Gallagher (as the husband who does not get any sex from his wife so he decides to get it from his wife’s sister), Laura San Giacomo (as the extroverted sister who is driven by jealousy to the point where she will get herself in situations that can potentially hurt her sister), and James Spader (as the husband’s college friend who videotapes women and their sexual secrets) all did an amazing job trying to measure each other up–what they know, what they don’t know and how they can untangle themselves from each other. This is a prime example of achieving a lot without a big budget. Instead of flashy special and visual effects, it focuses on the script and the role of psychology in these characters’ lives. The conversations felt real because what the characters say out loud are sometimes lies and we have to constantly figure out what they really mean by looking at their body languages. This film is not only about human relationships. It’s also about voyeurism, how one’s alienation with oneself can sometimes infect others, and how one can share more information when facing a camera instead of facing another individual. I think that’s very relevant today now that YouTube vlogging is such a phenomena. Some of the most popular YouTube bloggers are very soft-spoken in real life but when they get in front of the camera, it’s like they become a completely different person. This film reflected that and I was very, very impressed. This is the kind of picture that I wouldn’t mind watching multiple times because of the complex dynamics between the characters. It’s just that good and I highly recommend everyone to watch it especially those who are into character studies.
★★ / ★★★★
This picture started out beautifully but as it went on, it got too wrapped up in its own soap opera. I’m not sure whether the original material was the problem (it was based on “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth) or if it was Isabel Coixet’s style of direction, but what I do know is that it should have been a more effective character study. Ben Kingsley, a cultural critic, falls for Penélope Cruz, one of his students. Kingsley’s character is very obsessive, insecure about his aging body and has a lot of fears about not being accepted by certain people. Cruz’ character is beautiful but she’s also very smart and she sees something in Kingsley’s character that not a lot people do. So, in a way, they’re a fit for each other despite the thirty-year age difference. I also liked Patricia Clarkson’s character and her “purely” sexual relationship with Kingsley. I say “purely” because even though the two desperately want to believe that what they have is merely sex, I could tell by their actions and silent moments that there’s something more about that relationship. Clarkson provided a much needed break between Cruz and Kingsley’s sometimes suffocating (but stirring) conversations. What didn’t work for me was Kingsley’s relationship with his best friend (Dennis Hopper). Not only was Hopper’s character underdeveloped, the tone changed whenever he was on screen so I was constantly taken out of that solemn atmosphere that the film tried to consistently attain. When I look at the bigger picture, I feel like I’ve seen it all before: the strained relationships, the regret and anger that comes with self-doubt, and the man falling in love with a much younger woman. I did like the conversations because they had real emotions and intelligence. However, I can’t recommend this movie because it didn’t quite reach the level and staying power that the first few scenes had promised to achieve.
Mean Streets (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The thing I like most about Martin Scorsese’s films is that he always gives his audiences the full package: great ear for dialogue, main characters that are very conflicted, astute use of color and settings that reflect a particular mood or attitude. This is one of the finest examples of Scorsese’s amazing career as a director. Harvey Keitel is wonderful to watch as a man who wants to acquire a respectable reputation in a mob in New York City’s Little Italy. However, his loyatly is torn in many different directions: the mob boss (Cesare Danova), his girlfriend (Amy Robinson), the church and his best friend (Robert De Niro). Keitel’s character is a man who wants to please everybody to the point where he ends up having too many worries in his mind. Those unfinished business that run about in his head breed frustration and anger inside him until he can no longer make everyone happy. However, this is not the kind of film that aims to teach audiences a valuable life lesson. Its goal is to simply observe this one man trying to keep his head above water while sharks surround him. My favorite scenes in this picture are all of the scenes when Keitel and De Niro would talk to each other. Each scene that they have whenever it’s just the two of them is so crucial because both of them reveal something that the audiences don’t know about them–usually something that is hidden whenever they’re around “tough guys” that run all over Little Italy. Some of the scenes really touched me because even though they are best friends that experience all the ups and downs, they’re more like brothers to each other. Even though De Niro’s character is irresponsible and immature, it’s not hard to tell that he loves Keitel unconditionally. On the outside, people may label this as a gangster film because of all the swagger of each character, but I consider this an ultimate character study. I admired Scorsese’s use of camera angles and quick cuts because they add to the movie’s overall feel. This film, without a doubt, influenced some of Quentin Tarantino’s best work such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” So if you enjoyed those pictures, you’re most likely going to enjoy “Mean Streets.” I would like to see De Niro, Keitel and Scorsese team up in a modern film to see how much their chemistry has changed.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I can’t say that this is one of my favorite films from Stanley Kubrick, but I have to admit that this picture is extremely well-crafted. I was impressed that Kubrick shot each scene with only natural light such as the sun during the day and candles during the night. His use of certain cameras that tend to highlight the magnificient backgrounds is nothing short of brilliant. Like “Full Metal Jacket,” the topic of duality is explored in a meaningful way. The first part of the film focuses on Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal): how he left his family and joined the British Army. The second part of the film is about Barry Lyndon (still played by O’Neal) and his attempt to attain the respect he can never achieve. Redmond Barry and Barry Lyndon, though the same person, are completely different from each other. The former is naive and honorable, but the latter is hungry for wealth and power. On the outside, it’s about the rise and fall of man. But I think it’s so much more than that. “Barry Lyndon” is a classic example of a man so willing to change himself by forgetting his past as he tries to gather wealth and power (by marrying Marisa Berenson who plays Lady Lyndon), all the while not caring about anyone who gets hurt by his actions. At the same time, he’s not viewed as a completely evil person because of the events that shaped him; he still has the capability to love even though he does not show it in an apparent manner. I can see why most people would initially dismiss this film because it is very slow-moving. However, if one learns to embrace its slow nature, he or she will be rewarded by its epic historical story. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that this film won two Oscars–Best Cinematography amd Best Costume Design–because I’ve never seen anything like it. Each prop is gorgeous, especially the clothes and the paintings on the walls. Many times in the movie, especially during the second half, I felt like I was visiting a museum, not just because of the aesthetics, but also due to the echoes created by the characters’ feet and the whispers in conversations. Kubrick really was a perfectionist and it shows because each of his work is always exemplary. This is a difficult film to swallow and one of the reasons is its three-hour running time. However, it’s a fascinating character study. Barry Lyndon doesn’t realize that by forgetting where he comes from, he loses a significant portion of himself and therefore cannot grow to be a better person. He finds happiness in material things but never realizes that all he had to do was look inside himself. And that is only one of the many tragedies that this breathtaking film has to offer.
Boy A (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Originally a novel written by Jonathan Trigell, this feature film directed by John Crowley is ultimately about about rehabilitation and redemption. Even though it’s more focused on the rehabilitation outside of a facility, I think it’s more interesting because it also manages to tackle the philosophical question of others’ knowledge (and lack thereof) of a particular event in one’s life–how that knowledge can change the way they think and act around the person of controversy. Andrew Garfield does an amazing job as Jack Burridge who was sentenced to jail as a child because of a murder he committed. With the help of Peter Mullan’s character who is like a father figure to Jack, Jack is given the chance to reintegrate into a society that he left (or of which that left him?). Garfield, within the first five minutes, proved to me that he truly regrets the past and wants to lead a normal life again. He has that childlike quality that is extremely charming, but at the same time there are moments in the film that shows the audience that the evil inside him–which most likely resides within us as well–is not fully expunged despite his best efforts. Garfield gives us a really complex character study; how a person that is continually challenged and reminded of his past reaches some sort of breaking point even though many things are seemingly going in the right direction. Another stand-out performance is from Katie Lyons as Garfield’s girlfriend. She’s strong and spunky, determined and a bit over-the-top–which is a perfect fit for Garfield because he tries to dim his light since he doesn’t want to get much (positive and negative) attention from people. Some of the highlights in the film include Garfield’s dance when he was under the influence of ecstasy (I thought that was kind sexy), Garfield and Lyons’ intimate conversations, and the final scene. The last scene blew me away because it was so powerful when it comes to engaging the audience. The film’s strength and downfall were the flashback scenes. Even though those scenes are necessary to explain what happened in the past and they were placed in the right moments in the film, the flashbacks brought up new questions that weren’t really answered in the end. Perhaps if one read the novel, the answers would be clearer but those that did not might be a bit confused. Still, this is a very good movie that gathers momentum as it goes on and doesn’t break its spell until after the exemplary last scene. This is a thinking person’s movie because it essentially comments on (and even questions) human psychology. It is also the kind of film that ignites discussion.
Hallam Foe (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right from the get-go, the film establishes that the protagonist (Jamie Bell) is a strange but very sad character because he doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s death. He acts out by spying on people, breaking into people’s homes and going through their things, all the while jotting down what he has seen, felt, and done after such actions. He also happens to believe that his stepmother (Claire Forlani), his father’s former secretary, killed his mother. That first part of the film was compelling because Bell was able to make the audience feel for him even though the things he does are creepy and borderline criminal. I found it difficult to blame the protagonist because not only is he really young and not aware of the consequences of his actions, I could tell that he really did love his mother… or maybe he loved her too much to the point of utter dependence. Taking that important parent figure from his life at such a young age damaged him emotionally and psychologically so I found his flaws to be reasonable if not relatable. The second part of the picture when Bell moved to the city and met a look-alike of his mother (Sophia Myles) was a bit less compelling because there were so many distractions that slowed the plot down (the scenes during his job which was supposed to serve as an escape, his nightly adventures in the streets, et cetera) .The only thing about the second act that I found to work in all levels was his sexual attraction to his look-alike mother (and how he stalked her at first). It says a lot about his desperation and the lack of closure regarding his mother’s death. The last act when Bell returns home was jawdropping and heartbreaking at the same time. By the end of the film, I felt like the main character grew so much despite still being a bit flawed and fragile. The story doesn’t tie everything up regarding the characters’ lives but offers hope that there’s a light at the end of the interminable tunnel of bleakness and confusion. This film provides an interesting character study and I only recommend it to those that are interested in how a character evolves over time.