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Shame, The Vow, The Innkeepers 

SHAME

***

Michael Fassbender went all James Brown on us in 2011, as the hardest working man in show business - or at least in film - appeared in leading roles in no less than four motion pictures. Fassbender was compelling as Rochester in Jane Eyre, as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method and especially as Magneto in X-Men: First Class, but it was his role in Shame that allowed him to most fully expose himself, in more ways than one.

Shame, the first collaboration between Fassbender and director Steve McQueen since 2008's Hunger, focuses on the travails of a sex addict, a story that could only be adequately told in a film carrying the dreaded NC-17 rating. Certainly, this isn't one for the kiddies, and, I'd venture to say, it's not for most adults, either.

Fassbender stars as Brandon, a New Yorker who's obsessed with sex. "You masturbate more than anybody on the planet," Chris Rock's Rufus tells Jason Mewes' Jay (of Jay and Silent Bob fame) in Kevin Smith's Dogma, but this film lays waste to that statement: Brandon jerks off in front of his computer, in his bathroom at home, in the bathroom stall at work, and seemingly anywhere short of a church pew.

Yet his horndog activity isn't always a solo one: He's charming enough to pick up women at bars and, failing that, he can always rely on his stable of hookers. It's not surprising, then, that he finds it a nuisance when his emotionally fragile sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly appears on his doorstep, looking for a place to crash. And when a co-worker (the bright Nicole Beharie) shows interest in a real relationship, he's forced to reevaluate his lifestyle.

McQueen's direction is occasionally languid to a fault, and his script (co-written by Abi Morgan) manages to be both admirable and irritating in its pronounced vagueness ("We're not bad people," Sissy states at one point. "We just come from a bad place.").

Yet while the movie might sport problems on the conceptual level, the haunting, tortured performance by Fassbender is an absolute knockout - to miss it would be a real, uh, shame.

Screens March 4 at Victory Square Cinemas, presented by Cinema Savannah. $10 cash only.

THE VOW

**1/2

Channing Tatum's best shot at being taken even semiseriously as an actor would be to only make movies with Rachel McAdams for the rest of his life. A fine performer with a vulnerable and disarming beauty, McAdams has previously been romantically linked on screen to Ryan Gosling, James Marsden and Owen Wilson (among others), but it's no major feat to generate chemistry with talented guys like these.

But to strike cinematic sparks with a limited stud like Tatum not only requires skill on McAdams' part, it also demands that her co-star somewhat rise to her level. And when The Vow works, it's almost always because of the give-and-take dynamics between the pair.

Based on a true story, this centers on Paige and Leo, a madly-in-love married couple whose lives change drastically after Paige loses much of her memory in a car accident. She can remember her life before Leo -- her wealthy, right-wing parents (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill), her circle of sorority-sister friends, her slick fiancé (Scott Speedman), her interest in attending law school -- but she can't remember anything afterward.

That would encompass her career in sculpture, her liberal world view ("You voted for Obama," Leo informs her), her switch from carnivore to vegetarian, and, oh yeah, the fact that she has a husband. Thus, it's up to Leo to insure that they get reacquainted, but Claire's having a hard time falling in love with him this time around, as the comfort and security of her life at home are more reassuring to her than sharing an apartment with this perfect stranger.

Although McAdams gives the more fully rounded performance, it's Tatum's character who earns the majority of our sympathies, and the actor does just enough right to guarantee our allegiance to his cause. The scenes in which he tries to connect with his equally frustrated wife are the best in the film, and once the story moves past this and settles on Paige's betrayals by those from her past, it gets bogged down in mopey melodrama and never recovers.

Still, for those seeking out a love story that doesn't insult the head or the heart through shameless manipulation, the sweetly sincere The Vow mostly fulfills its promise.

THE INNKEEPERS

***

Admittedly, I took my sweet time about it, but it was only a few weeks ago that I finally caught up with 2009's The House of the Devil. This wildly acclaimed effort from writer-director Ti West had been repeatedly referred to as a throwback to the horror films of the 1980s, a designation that doesn't strike me as entirely accurate.

Rather, West's unsettling yarn about a college student (Jocelin Donahue) running afoul of a satanic cult seems to borrow from several decades, given its mishmash of '60s Hammer ambiance, '70s under-the-nails grit, '80s rollicking soundtrack (from Jeff Grace's John Carpenter-esque score to period songs by The Fixx, The Greg Kihn Band and Thomas Dolby), and modern-day mumblecore. It's an impressive piece, with West maintaining a firm grip on the material until a harried and hurried ending that's not entirely satisfying. But no matter: By turning his back on the torture-porn techniques prevalent in many contemporary tales, West was branded one of the saviors of the often maligned horror genre.

With The Innkeepers, he shows no intention of giving up his exalted status. As before, the reverential filmmaker not only bypasses the gore galore but also largely avoids those cheap gotcha scares that directors often employ when they're unable to generate genuine suspense (latest guilty party: The Woman in Black). Like The House of the Devil, this latest picture has atmosphere to spare, and West furthermore does just enough different to distinguish it from other chillers of the "haunted house" variety.

The setting is the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a New England hotel that's about to close permanently. Before that happens, its sole employees, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), are determined to obtain proof that the venue is haunted by the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, a newlywed who decades earlier had killed herself at the inn after being abandoned by her spouse and whose body was then buried in the cellar by the hotel's owners.

Claire and Luke end up spending more time yakking about the supernatural than providing for the hotel's few guests, which include a washed-up TV actress (Kelly McGillis) now working as a psychic and an elderly man (George Riddle) who insists on renting a specific room on one of the now-shuttered floors.

Riddle's character is flat-out unsettling, but in her own way, so is that of McGillis -- a feeling amplified by West's astute casting of an actress who was briefly all the rage in the 1980s (Witness, Top Gun, The Accused) but who has since become something of an ethereal, unseen presence herself. Indeed, in one form or another, all of the major characters are ghosts haunting the premises, including the central slackers. Luke is a college dropout whose personality is strictly defined by his computer, that impersonal otherworld where he can build his own website (a look at famous haunts) and access porn to his heart's content. Claire, meanwhile, is a tomboyish type who has no dreams, aspirations or expectations. We routinely see people like Luke in movies (Clerks, to name one of a thousand), so Claire is the real catch here. Twentysomething pixies in cinema are usually bright, brainy and socially functional -- think Ellen Page in Juno or Natalie Portman in Garden State -- but Claire is so naive and so backward, it's impossible to gauge how she would survive in the world outside the hotel. Thanks to West's penning of this character and Paxton's terrific performance in the role, we not only become emotionally invested in her travails, we also feel protective of her. Therefore, on those occasions throughout the film when neither Luke nor the psychic are able to adequately take care of her, we realize that their failure also feels like our failure. The true horror in this picture, then, isn't the presence of any spirits as much as it's the inability of the flesh-and-blood characters to undergo any meaningful manifestations in the material world.

 

 

 

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