Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: "Shame" - the best film of 2011 - arrives on home video light on features but high on A/V quality


If you hadn’t already heard, Steve McQueen’s “Shame” was my favorite film of 2011, and stands as one of the greatest works of cinematic art I have ever experienced.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, but its limited theatrical run meant many viewers didn’t get the chance to see the film.  Hopefully that will all be rectified, as “Shame” is now available on home video exclusively in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.  Does the Blu-Ray release do the movie justice, or does it come up short?

Find out in my review of “Shame” on Blu-Ray after the jump…

THE FILM:

Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a corporate drone in the throws of an intense sexual addiction.  Once upon a time Brandon may have used sex for pleasure, but at this point, sex is a distraction, something safe and familiar he retreats to for consistency.  He isn’t picky about how he gets his fix, either; he tries seducing women, and is fairly adept at it, but failing that, he hires prostitutes, uses online sex chat rooms, and masturbates compulsively.  Sometimes, all he needs is a visual stimulus, as in one scene where he watches porn on the computer as casually as most people would watch YouTube. 

Clearly, Brandon has problems, and one of director/co-writer Steve McQueen’s best decisions is to never explicitly explain why Brandon needs sex or what he is running from; Fassbender isn’t given a climactic monologue to lay his psyche bare.  Instead, McQueen trusts Fassbender to illustrate all of the character’s intricacies and the viewer to watch closely, to engage with the film and meaningfully dissect the character based on what we are given.  And we are given a lot, for Fassbender is absolutely stunning in the role, bearing his heart, soul, and much more for the world to see.  Yet he does so with restraint and nuance, making the character feel entirely palpable.  Running the gambit from funny to natural to unsettling to frightening, while always remaining, if not likable, sympathetic, Fassbender is simply magnetic.  It is fascinating to observe how Brandon moves through the world and how he interacts with others.  He doesn’t have friends so much as acquaintances, work buddies at best, and one could argue he only hangs out with these men to create a semblance of normality as he tries seducing women.  He doesn’t just shy away from meaningful contact, he runs from it, is terrified by it, and he fills these gaping holes in his life the only way he knows how.

The key conflict of “Shame,” then, is the arrival of his sister, Sissy (the wonderful Carey Mulligan), someone he loves but actively ignores precisely because his relationship with her is meaningful.  Sissy has plenty of baggage of her own, and in many ways, she’s even more mysterious than Brandon.  Mulligan handles the character’s darker side magnificently, suggesting volumes with a single glance, but that’s one her specialties.  She’s unrecognizable in the role because, while she tends to play more reserved characters, Sissy is bursting at the seams with playful enthusiasm.  She’s impossible not to love, and that’s something Brandon can’t ignore either.  Early on, the pair have several casual, friendly scenes together that are as hilarious as they are charming; Fassbender and Mulligan have tremendous chemistry, and it doesn’t take long to establish what these two mean to each other.  That’s precisely what scares Brandon so much, and though Mulligan only appears sparingly, Sissy’s impact is felt in every scene.

McQueen’s incredible craftsmanship lends the film a mesmeric quality, using the large amount of space afforded by a wide, 2.35:1 aspect ratio to say so much about his characters; many lone shots of Brandon place him on one extreme end of the frame or another, expressing the space he inhabits as a loner.  He is distanced from the world, and the width of the frame illustrates that remoteness.  When he is centered in the frame, he seems uncomfortable, or at least out of his depth.  When characters share the screen, they are expertly placed to imply relationships, to say things that are most powerfully expressed visually.  There is usually space between Brandon and any other individual, unless that person is Sissy.  He is allowed to be close to her; in fact, McQueen practically regards their bond as sacred, so much so that their two key exchanges are framed as close-ups on the back of their heads, giving them a semblance of privacy.  Even more impressive is McQueen’s use of long takes and judicial editing to ensure that the filmmaking never takes us out of the moment.  There are some truly incredible extended takes here, including a long tracking shot of Brandon as he jogs through New York; many dialogue scenes contain no cuts, simply framing the actors as they deliver the entire sequence in one go.  Even when not using long takes, McQueen cuts infrequently, letting each shot breathe.

And, of course, the film doesn’t flinch from graphic portrays of sex and nudity.  NC-17 rating or no, “Shame” is adult; there’s no mistaking that.  But it is also incredibly rewarding, a film where you will take away as much as you are willing to put into it.  For some viewers, that will be hard, because “Shame” is not an easy movie to watch or digest; Brandon’s addiction holds a mirror to our own lives, to the destructive drives we all have to get ourselves through the day.  It’s a challenging movie, but I was captivated from the very beginning and only grew increasingly engaged as the film spirals towards its impactful conclusion. Film Rating: A+

VIDEO QUALITY:

NOTE: Not a screenshot
“Shame” is presented on Blu-Ray in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (slightly taller than the normal Blu-Ray presentation of 2.40:1, which I appreciate), encoded using AVC at 38 mbps.  I have seen the film projected theatrically on 35mm twice, and to my eye, the film looks exactly as it should, true to the source at all times.  The colors are intentionally subdued, and there’s a lot of very dark visual material, which means that even at it’s best, “Shame” isn’t designed to be pristine demo-material.  But detail and clarity are through the roof, as one would expect from a high-definition transfer of a new movie; the image displays a strong amount of depth, and there is a warm texture of grain that creates a supremely pleasing filmic appearance.  The print used looks absolutely pristine, and the only technical issue worth noting is that contrast could stand to be a tad stronger; some of the darkest scenes experience crush and a lack of detail.  On the whole, though, the transfer recreates the theatrical experience as well as one could hope, and does right by what I consider to be one of the most visually interesting and challenging films in recent memory. Video Rating: 4/5

AUDIO QUALITY:

The sound of “Shame” is carefully built around subtlety, and as with the video, this mix isn’t designed to show off your sound system.  That being said, “Shame” is a sonically fascinating film, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track does exactly what it’s supposed to do, crafting enveloping soundscapes when necessary – city streets, clubs, etc. – and reveling in softness, clarity, and precision at other times (“New York, New York” sound just as fantastic as one would expect).  Sound is an integral and detailed part of what makes “Shame” work, and on Blu-Ray, I’m happy to report that the mix is just as finely crafted as it was in theatres. Audio Rating: 4/5

EXTRAS AND PRESENTATION:

“Shame” is presented on home video exclusively in a Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo-pack; there is no stand-alone DVD release at this time.  A slipcover houses the standard Blu-Ray keep-case (with the increasingly common cut-outs beneath the discs to save plastic), which contains two-discs: the Blu-Ray, and a DVD, which doubles as the digital-copy transfer disc.  The DVD contains no other extras; you must use the Blu-Ray disc to access any special features. 

In a strange and unfortunate move, the digital copy can only be transferred to an Android-powered device; it will not copy to iTunes, nor will it play on iOS devices.  I am a bit baffled as to why Fox would leave their largest digital-copy consumer base in the dust, but on the other hand, there’s no way I was ever going to watch “Shame” on an iPad, so I can’t say I’m too disappointed. 

The extras themselves are equally troublesome; there are only five very short featurettes and a theatrical trailer, none of which was specifically produced for this Blu-Ray release.  It’s all advertisement material, previously shown online or on TV to promote the film, and while there’s some quality insight thanks to the intelligence and passion of the filmmakers, it barely scratches the surface of what “Shame” is about.  We see the same clips, hear the same music, and listen to similar stories in each feature; at the very least, though, they are almost all presented in high-definition.  Let’s do a brief rundown:

Focus on Michael Fassbender (3:01) – An EPK-style feature produced for internet advertising where Fassbender is interviewed about his character, set to clips from the film.  Fassbender is very open about his process, which is interesting, but nothing too substantive for those who have seen the movie.

Director Steve McQueen (3:09) – Same as above, except with the director; McQueen has a lot of very cool things to say about the characters, sex, etc., and overall, this one is actually worth a watch.

The Story of Shame (3:19) – If you’ve watched the first two, there’s really nothing new to see here, except for some snippets with Carey Mulligan.  The focus here is on the plot and themes, but again, they don’t go in much depth.

A Shared Vision (2:38) – It’s short, but this one is better than the others, if only for going in a bit more depth; it discusses the working relationship between Fassbender and McQueen, and has some neat behind-the-scenes snippets.

Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character With Michael Fassbender (5:15) – Presented in 4x3 standard definition, which is a bit odd, this is actually the best feature on the disc, as it allows Fassbender a little more freedom to discuss, in more depth, how he created Brandon.

Theatrical Trailer (1:47) – I love this trailer, so I’m glad to have it archived here in HD, but there’s a second trailer (built around “New York, New York”) that’s missing.  Oh well.  If you haven’t seen it, check this out – it’s a very strong piece of advertising. 

All told, that’s less than twenty minutes of bonus material, and none of it substantive.  I would have appreciated a commentary, or a behind-the-scenes documentary, or anything that showed some effort went into this extras package, but alas, what we gets really amounts to nothing.  For a film like “Shame,” I honestly don’t need extras, but had we gotten something better, I certainly would have watched it.  Again, not a huge disappointment, but if you are an extras junkie, the lack of quality material is worth considering. Extras and Presentation Rating: 1/5

Final Thoughts:

I think “Shame” is the best film of 2011.  It stands among the best films I’ve seen since I started writing film review.  There’s simply no way I’m not going to recommend this Blu-Ray package.  Yes, the extras are almost pathetically lacking, but for me, I’m more than happy to shell out twenty-five bucks for a 1080p print and uncompressed sound mix of a true masterpiece.  But that’s just me.  If you weren’t as sold on the film as I was, you might want to wait for a better sale price or give it a rental.  However you do it, I urge you to seek out “Shame.”  By virtue of the film itself, I can’t recommend this release highly enough. 

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