This week saw the local arrival of two movies that couldn’t be more different — except that neither made bank at the box office and both are worth checking out.
Just don’t bring any kids to Shame, the NC-17 art-house flick about sex addiction from English director Steve McQueen. This is an adult film — not just in its subject, but in its style. Five minutes of McQueen’s long, icily removed takes is enough to convince viewers that sex addiction is Serious Business and not particularly sexy.
The afflicted is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome, well-off financier type who lives in a minimalist Manhattan apartment and spends his off-hours bingeing on prostitutes and porn. For a while, he’s a hard character to care about, even after his perpetually hysterical sister (Carey Mulligan) crashes into his life and forces us to speculate about the troubled background that could have produced these siblings. Speculation is where it stops, because McQueen, as minimalist as his hero, supplies no backstory.
Shame is a frustratingly withholding film that, in its early scenes, reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. But while Somewhere’s overprivileged, alienated protagonist went nowhere, Fassbender is skilled enough to take Brandon on a journey that’s more powerful as it progresses. When he tries to have a “normal” date with a coworker (Nicole Beharie), her warmth and frankness pull Brandon out of his shell, and he opens up about his inability to have — or even comprehend — long-term relationships.
It’s no shock when Brandon bolts back to his solitary, Maxim-approved lifestyle, or when he takes that lifestyle to the next, dangerous level. But his sadness and shame are palpable, and, by the end, we do care about something in the film besides McQueen’s beautifully composed images of an unforgiving city.
And now, a movie you can take kids to: John Carter is what Cowboys & Aliens should have been. It’s loud, it’s silly, it’s colorful, it has CGI aliens and Civil War regalia, and, most importantly, it’s fun.
It helps that this mashup isn’t some test-marketed modern concoction but the adaptation of a 1912 pulp novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (best known as the creator of Tarzan). Rather than striving for a serious tone, director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and his two cowriters, one of whom is novelist Michael Chabon, follow Burroughs’ absurd plot twists with glee.
Taylor Kitsch (of “Friday Night Lights”) plays the title character, a Civil War veteran who goes on a treasure hunt and finds himself pulled through a wormhole (or the 1912 conceptual equivalent) to Mars. There Carter becomes a pawn in the epic conflicts among various human and alien races, and pledges himself to save a fierce, midriff-baring princess (Lynn Collins) from marriage to a sneering villain (Dominic West).
Of course he does. The plot is pure pulp, and Stanton mocks it with love — for instance, with the clever editing of an early sequence where we learn that nobody can keep John Carter down. (His cheerful indomitability comes in handy on Mars, where the low gravity gives him superheroic abilities, too.)
The whole tall tale may remind viewers of the days when Episode IV was still known as Star Wars. Today’s blockbusters tend to be processions of elaborate action setpieces linked by sketchy or minimal storytelling, reflecting their mixed-media origins as comic books, video games and toys. Burroughs, who couldn’t show his readers the action, had to entertain them with Wizard of Oz-style inventiveness — interdimensional travel! Alien family drama! A blue-tongued dog-hippo-hybrid sidekick! — and Stanton and co. put it all on screen.
With its emphasis on narrative, John Carter plays more like an Asian than an American action epic, which could be why it’s earning so little over here. Or maybe it’s the dull-as-dirt title. Too bad, because kids — those ready for PG-13 violence, anyway — would probably dig this trip to Mars.