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Shame

Shame is a feeling that most of us know very well. Now imagine that feeling is so great, it dominates your every waking moment. Steve McQueen’s film Shame, which was released on DVD last week, takes a look at a man whose sexual addiction and shame associated with it have almost completely swallowed his life. This film does not pass judgment; it simply drops in to watch a man struggle with his darkness.

The protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), is held hostage by his sexual addiction, and has his life perfectly ordered in order to fulfill it. He forgoes personal connections, is emotionally distant and buries himself in his shameful secret. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer, drops in unannounced, it throws his life into chaos. Just like Brandon, there appears to be something very wrong with Sissy. She is self destructive and an emotional wreak. Although their past is never addressed in the film, it’s clear that something awful has happened to both of them. There are moments where they seem to get along, but others where Brandon lashes out at Sissy with a terrible anger. The movie is tragic, and it appears as though Brandon’s situation may never improve.

I truly believe that Michael Fassbender should have been recognized by the Academy for this role. While I understand the politics regarding why he was overlooked, it would have been nice to see the Academy take a chance and nominate his riveting, and heartbreaking performance. Carey Mulligan is also good here as Sissy, though the role was a little too confined for her to really shine the way she has in previous films.

I found Steve McQueen’s sympathetic look into the dark, and often misunderstood world of a sex addict refreshing. It’s a controversial topic, indeed, the medical community seems to be split regarding whether sex addiction actually exists. When we do hear about it, sex addiction is all too often sensationalized by media, or winds up at the butt end of jokes. McQueen shows us a different side of a problem that is no laughing matter. Rather than showing Brandon reveling in sex, we are shown that it has become a necessary ritual for him. The camera often gets uncomfortably close to his face during intercourse and orgasm. He doesn’t look happy. In fact, he seems to loathe his actions so much, that he can’t bring himself to have sex with a woman he is genuinely interested in. He pursues sex relentlessly, picking up men and women (sexual preferences don’t seem to matter to him, it’s only the act he is interested in) and risking his job by filling his work desktop with porn. As the film progresses, we watch Brandon fall further into a spiral of self destructive behaviour. At one point in the film he approaches a woman at a bar, and explains in detail the lewd things he wants to do to her. Her boyfriend, who is beside her, confronts Brandon, and beats him up as he is leaving.

Strengths aside, Shame is not without its flaws. This slice of life film moves along at a very slow and methodical pace, which will not be to everyone’s tastes. Although I found the majority of it fascinating, the tail end of the film really drags. Some scenes also teeter on the edge of pretentiousness, such as Sissy’s bizarre, and super slowed rendition of “New York New York”. The scene just barely works, and showcases one of Brandon’s rare scenes of emotional honesty, yet it felt a little too surreal for the rest of the film, and doesn’t quite fit.

While not perfect, Shame is a powerful film. I commend Steve McQueen for an unwavering portrayal of such a controversial and misunderstood subject.

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The Help

The Help has certainly received a lot of Oscar buzz, more than I think it deserves honestly. While this film is entertaining, and does feature some strong performances, it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Although well meaning, The Help is of course tailored to a Hollywood, predominately white audience, and as such, ignores many key factors in racial oppression, and seems to act as an exoneration of viewers’ collective “white guilt”.

The story is framed against the growing civil rights movement of the 1960’s and focuses on both Aibileen (Viola Davis), a black maid, and Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississipi. Skeeter is aggravated by how her former friends treat their hired help and decides to write a book that would tell the maids’ perspective of the racism they experience on the job. Although she receives quite a lot of resistance to the idea initially, Aibileen agrees and allows Skeeter to interview her about her work and what it is like rising white children who inevitably grow into women who are just as bigoted as their mothers. As the film progresses we are witness to some of the indignities faced by the hired help at the hands of their employers. This film is quite lengthy, and attempts to cover an extended period of time, from Skeeter’s book’s conception to its publication. Although the story has its moments, the pacing is not always the best and skips over what I thought were important relationship developments.

The standout performance in The Help is from Viola Davis, who is powerful as Aibileen and equips the character with an emotional intensity that boils below the surface of her quiet and well mannered appearance. Octavia Spencer is also quite good as Minny, Aibileen’s bold friend and fellow maid. While both of these women have received Oscar nominations, it is unfortunate that the roles they are being honoured for are stereotypical Mammy characters. Although they bring life to these characters, the writing in The Help does little to add much depth to these roles outside of their usual cinematic portrayal. Speaking of Oscar nominations, Jessica Chastain also managed to get one for her role as Celia Foote, and while Chastain is absolutely adorable in this film, it is hardly a substantial role. It is interesting that with the volume of strong perfomances she has turned in this year (ie. The Tree of Life, Take Shelter), it is interesting that this one would be highlighted.

As I have mentioned above, although the film is entertaining and very audience friendly, it has some major flaws that I found troublesome. The film’s cast is nearly all female and I found the lack of a male presence to be curious. Racism is displayed as an expression of mean spirited attitudes and actions housewives enacted against their hired help, effectively ignoring the threat of rape and abuse male employers represented. I believe that it is telling that we see Minnie suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her black male partner, while the maids generally are shown to have little to no contact with white male homeowners. Furthermore, The Help, like oh so many Hollywood features about race relations, gives its white protagonist nearly all the power and portrays her as a saviour.  Audiences are convinced that without Skeeter’s actions, the maids situation never would have improved. The film strips away any notion that these characters had the ability and strength to emancipate themselves using their own resources.

The Help makes for some enjoyable light entertainment, but it should be viewed with a grain of salt.

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