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December 18, 2012

2012: 2011 FILMS IN 2012

Steve McQueen’s Shame stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in merciless performances. Fassbender’s Brandon is a Manhattan professional of some financial sector sort, pathologically addicted to anonymous sex, pornography, you name it. When his sister Sissy (Mulligan) arrives, the routine he has created to feed his habit is disrupted. She is a cutter whose emotional neediness contrasts with his emotional detachment, but they are two sides of the same coin. Their childhood is never touched upon, yet we feel the undertow of some long repressed experience that each has developed a compulsive mechanism to cope with. Finally, I was unable to decide just quite what I thought about these characters. Writing for the NYT, A. O. Scott says, “The movie, for all its displays of honesty (which is to say nudity), is also curiously coy. It presents Brandon for our titillation, our disapproval and perhaps our envy, but denies him access to our sympathy.” I cannot agree. There were other films throughout the year featuring people I cared absolutely nothing about. Something in both performances managed to allow me to call up some degree of empathy for these characters – despite their morbid behaviors – in the way one can understand an abused animal that persists in opening old wounds.

Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from Lionel Shriver's novel, traces a family whose son ends up committing a mass murder at his high school (using a high-powered bow and arrows). It wants to be an exploration of the incomprehensibility of what drives an individual to undertake such an act of carnage, and of the unease the boy has always elicited in his mother, who wonders whether he was born this way, which might then, having given him birth, make her complicit in his crime. I write this mere days after the Connecticut shooting, and though these are important questions to ponder, the film felt more gratuitous than insightful to me – closer to voyeurism than to keen psychological drama. A. O. Scott's review for the NYT argues that the film "is less a psychological or sociological case study than a horror movie...."

As any reviewer will mention, it is obvious why Ralph Fiennes chose Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at this particular historical moment. Fiennes directed and stars in this lean mean adaptation by John Logan. Martius, even before he has become Coriolanus, is transparent in his contempt for the 99% he is supposed to defend and equally transparent in his admiration for his blood enemy, the Volscian commander Aufidius. For those who enjoy experiencing anew Shakespeare’s timeless insights into the nature of the human, Fiennes’ Coriolanus will not disappoint.

Caution: Spoiler – Plot Outline: Rome has for years been at war with Volsci [or Iraq or Afghanistan]. Deputy to the Roman army commander, the celebrated General Martius, with contempt for the 99% protesting against him for denying them grain, declares them undeserving. After defeating the Volsci, Martius receives the cognomen of "Coriolanus” prompting his power hungry mother to press him to run for consul. He wins an overwhelming majority of a cynical senate, as well as the support of the 99% -- or so it seems…until Occupy schemers whip up a riot in opposition. Enraged, Coriolanus inveighs against popular rule, is condemned as a traitor, and banished. In exile, he seeks out Aufidius and his Skinhead lot, and offers to let Aufidius kill him to spite Rome. Moved, Aufidius embraces Coriolanus and asks him to lead a renewed assault on Rome. To show his camaraderie with the Volsci, Coriolanus has his head shaved and adopts their tattoos. When Rome fails to repel the vengeful attack, Corlionaus’ mother, now shamed, is sent, with Coriolanus' wife and son, to plead with him not to destroy Rome. He arranges a peace treaty and returns to the Volscian capital, where conspirators, organized by Aufidius, kill him for his betrayal.

I thought of putting Oren Moverman’s noir-ish Rampart into a new category I was toying with calling “Who Cares?” It has its story roots in the LAPD’s anti-gang Rampart Division, which was awash in corruption by the late ‘90s. Woody Harrelson plays the morally bereft Dave. There’s nothing to like about him, and though I read several admiring reviews of Harrelson’s performance, I never felt I was allowed to see Dave’s humanity – or that of most of the characters who surround him – albeit in an ever retreating circumference – with the notable exception of Ned Beatty who plays a crooked ex-cop and Dave’s lone friend. (Manohla Dargis's NTY review)

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