★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Take Shelter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curtis (Michael Shannon) was a hardworking construction worker who was suddenly struck by intense nightmares about an upcoming storm. In the dream, rain had the properties of motor oil and people threatened to inflict violence on him and abduct his daughter (Tova Stewart). Experiencing them every night, Curtis suspected that they were more than just recurring bad dreams. He felt an overwhelming need to clean out and prepare the storm shelter in the backyard because something terrible was coming. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, successfully placed us into the mind of a possible paranoid schizophrenic. Although our protagonist’s dreams were strange, violent, and horrific, the material sympathized with Curtis by focusing on how his family, friends, and co-workers reacted to his increasingly unexplainable behaviors. Since not one of them knew what he was going through, the tension was embedded in how Curtis desperately tried to keep hiding his affliction. As his condition worsened, people just assumed it was either due to stress or lack of sleep. Shannon did a wonderful job juggling unmentioned details of his character by simply using his solemnly desperate eyes and tall, somewhat lanky figure. While it was practical that Curtis would be ashamed to be the topic of small town gossip, the cover-up, I think, was for the purpose of protecting his family. Having gone through the shame of having a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis didn’t want for his wife and child to experience what he went through many years prior. Furthermore, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Curtis’ daughter was a deaf child on the verge of receiving a cochlear implant. As we all know, most people tend to hold a certain idea toward “handicapables.” While the nightmares commanded a magnetic realism, I was most fascinated with and craved more of the scenes where Curtis tried to seek help from professionals. The look they gave him as they assessed what was wrong and the look he gave them when they admitted there were no easy solutions was an emotional roller coaster. The screenplay was smart in maintaining an unclear position relative to Curtis’ condition. Certain signs, like delusions and hallucinations, led to an undiagnosed mental illness, but portentous images, like birds flying as though they’ve gone crazy, pointed to the possibility of the world coming to an end. While what was really happening to Curtis could and did spark rousing debates, it doesn’t matter to me which camp is right. And the way I see it, you shouldn’t either. The first point the film wanted to make was for us, like most schizophrenics, not to be able to descry between fantasy and reality. Since we couldn’t, reflected by different interpretations of what “really” happened, the writer-director successfully placed us into a mentally ill person’s shoes. The second point is the social angle from the fear of being considered an aberration by one’s community, yes, even one’s family, and having to live with a label for the rest of one’s life. If anything, the picture subtly argues that we should learn to be more sympathetic of other people’s plight; it’s easy to judge but it takes a bit of effort to understand.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) made no contact with her family and friends for two years. During that time, she joined a cult, led by the quietly malevolent Patrick (John Hawkes) who renamed her Marcy May, a place where she believed was perfect to reset her life. Unable to endure their way of living any longer, Martha ran through the woods, called her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and asked to get picked up. Lucy and her successful but stressed husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), allowed Martha to stay with them in their vacation house and hoped that she would eventually open up about what happened during her disappearance. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” written and directed by Sean Durkin, captured a traumatized and fractured mind without necessarily showing every violent detail. It focused on the repercussions–how certain things that were done could not be undone. Most of the time, the filmmakers relied on Olsen to deliver subtle facial expressions as she sat in one place, looked around the room as if she was lost or confused, and recalled the terrible things she was forced to do for the sake of the group she formerly belonged in. Every time the film jumped between past and present, Olsen almost played a different character but it worked because the protagonist didn’t have a defined identity. Her first identity was erased after joining the cult. Although we can agree that her decision to go back to the real world was ultimately a good thing, it’s not at all difficult to argue that her decision was unhealthy for her mind. She wasn’t ready to leave. But will she ever be ready to? Martha and Lucy’s interactions were very sad and sometimes unnerving. For example, the sisters would prepare dinner and suddenly Martha would ask, “Where is this? Is this now or is this the past?” It consistently surprised me because something so ordinary, like preparing a meal, was often marred by a strange but very serious question or comment. Lucy, who felt guilty for not being the sister she thought she ought to be, struggled to be supportive by not falling apart. Having her sister under the same roof as her husband proved to be a bad idea but she made the most of it. Yet she was only human. There were times when she would scream at Martha out of frustration because it seemed like no matter what she did, her sister’s condition turned for the worse. Feeling like one’s effort is not appreciated breeds anger and grudge. It didn’t help that she had no knowledge of Martha’s experience in the cult. She was led to believe that Martha had a boyfriend and she was only experiencing a bad break-up. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” purposefully slow in pace but consistently focused on the message it wanted to deliver, was driven by Olsen’s wonderful performance. The glossy blankness in her eyes was haunting one minute, very tragic the next. It was like trying to understand an empty shell. Martha came back in the same body but half of her mind was stuck in that terrible farm, still secretly coming up with ways to achieve freedom.
★★ / ★★★★
“Requiem” was based on the real-life story more commercially covered in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Michaela (Sandra Hüller) had been plagued by chronic seizures ever since childhood but the picture instantly suggested there was something far worse happening to her. So when she was finally accepted to attend the university, her parents (Imogen Kogge, Burghart Klaußner), especially her mother, did not want her to leave home. In college, at first things were fine despite her occasional–and natural–loneliness quickly remedied by a nice boy (Nicholas Reinke) and a classmate from high school (Anna Blomeier). But as the year pressed on, she slowly lost control of her body to the point where she was unable to reach religious symbols or even pray. After I saw this movie, I did not like it because I expected a more obvious approach in telling a story about a possessed girl that lead up to an exorcism. In other words, I expected a horror film. However, when I separate my expectations from what the film had to offer, the more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed it because it tried to stray from the obvious. I loved the fact that her condition was not an obvious demonic possession. I can even argue that she wasn’t possessed at all. From her symptoms, I can argue that she had schizophrenia because of the paranoia and imaginary visions and sounds. Then I turned to her very sheltered environment–how she was raised and the sexual repression she endured over the years. But then the movie commented on how we could easily turn to science for an explanation of things that we couldn’t fully understand. It added one layer of complexity after another while remaining true to its naturalistic also documentary-like style. Her progression from a normal girl to someone who reached a mental break was subtle and frightening in its own way. However, I thought the film needed more work on delivering more consistent payoffs. The first half relied heavily on setting up the background with small rewards dispersed few and far between. It would have been more terrifying if the camera allowed us to see through Michaela’s eyes and seeing the things she saw or hearing the voices she heard. By having more scenes that actively blurred the line between the real and the supernatural, the project would have been more frightening. Written by Barnd Lange and directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, “Requiem” was an interesting psychological drama with a lot of promise. It did not completely work for me because the first half was somewhat difficult to sit through but once it started picking up in the second half, my eyes were transfixed on the screen.