Sex has always been a taboo in films, even more so than violence. The MPAA will give the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies R-ratings without blinking an eye, but “Shame” bears the scarlet letter of an NC-17. The fuss is unwarranted because it courageously earns it. Though the film is about sex and features enough of it, artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen never exploits the content for cheap titillation but maturely and unflinchingly depicts it as a vice and addiction. Not since David Cronenberg’s “Crash” has sex been portrayed in such a daringly unsexy manner.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has the life: He is handsome and well-dressed, works as a New York City financial exec, and lives in a chic West 31st Street apartment. And he’s a sex addict. Brandon hires prostitutes, undresses women with his eyes on the subway, and dirties up his hard drive at work with porn, taking a break to compulsively masturbate in the public restroom. Carpal Tunnel is the least of his worries. Then his equally damaged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives unannounced and asks to stay with him. She works as a nightclub singer, but living within such close quarters, Brandon feels trapped like his own blood is weighing on his private life.

Co-written by Abi Morgan and director McQueen (2008’s “Hunger,” which also starred Fassbender in misery), the film never judges Brandon or Sissy. However, there’s the feeling that the brother-sister relationship is more repressed on the page than it should be. Are they blocking out an abusive childhood in New Jersey? Is incest involved? We can ponder, but the film doesn’t give it up. It’s a story that can’t possibly have an end or spell everything out with easy answers, but a little less ambiguity in certain areas might have enriched the emotional component and given us more of an understanding. Though the root of the problem is vague, Brandon’s addiction is unsparingly depicted through his day-to-day life.

McQueen might be a show-off, but he’s an artful show-off. Assisted by Sean Bobbit’s clean, sharp cinematography and Harry Escott’s mournfully haunting music score, McQueen’s virtuosity extends to a long, unbroken tracking shot along the streets of New York as Brandon goes for a late-night jog. It’s a filmmaker’s indulgence but an impressive one that has narrative context. Another excellent scene, where the camera very slowly inches in and doesn’t cut, has Brandon and his recently separated co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), on a dinner date.

“Shame” showcases a lot of Fassbender. We don’t just see the actor physically naked, but emotionally naked as well. This is a fearless, fascinating performance that deserves recognition. Fassbender shows us Brandon’s self-loathing and uncontrollable urges that lead to self-destruction. He’s trapped by his own weakness and can’t connect with another person unless it involves sex. When he tries to consummate his relationship with Marianne, it goes nowhere because he might actually care about her. By the end, when you think Brandon might continue to be on the prowl, his facial expression is numb. As Sissy, Mulligan is far from the demure women the actress has played in “An Education” and “Never Let Me Go,” and she’s fully convincing and heartbreaking in the part. Her slow, sad rendition of “New York, New York” literally brings a tear to Brandon’s eye, and on an even deeper level it feels like an anthem of broken dreams.

Neither character is given a lot of backstory, but Brandon is deeply troubled living a seemingly ordinary life on the surface. Sissy is also very much flawed herself, but tries to clean up her new life and help her brother when she’s not pushing his buttons. She’s a burden to Brandon, but as she tellingly puts it, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Fassbender and Mulligan create a history between siblings, even if their “bad place” is never fully explained, and it feels painfully real.

As a character study, “Shame” is ambiguous when it should be more insightful. It shows us a lot and tells us only a little with very few words. If it weren’t for Fassbender’s brave depiction of a tortured soul festered by his addiction, the film might be shallow. With him, this blistering, draining film stays with you like an STD.

Shame (2011)
101 min., rated NC-17.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to agree that animator Brad Bird has done the impossible and engineered the best movie in the spread-out “Mission: Impossible” canon. Brian De Palma started out the TV series-inspired franchise on a narratively convoluted but often exciting note with 1996’s “Mission: Impossible.” In 2000, John Woo’s “Mission: Impossible II” brought a cartoony, Hong Kong-style that made for a lively entertainment. And most recently, until now, was 2006’s “Mission: Impossible III,” where J.J. Abrams cranked up the concept into higher gear. While all of them had some wildly exciting stunts and plot twists from a distinctly different filmmaker, the fourth, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” moves the quickest on its feet between the breathtaking set pieces.

The first time in five years since he was married, we find Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) being held in a Moscow prison, but obviously not for long. His Impossible Missions Force operatives, communications specialist Benji (Simon Pegg) and new agent Jane (Paula Patton), engineer an exit strategy to transport Ethan out. Once out, Ethan and his team must steal a file full of nuclear launch codes inside the Kremlin, but on his way out, someone blows up the Kremlin, framing Ethan for the bombing and the government disavowing his team. Then, according to the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), the President has shut them down and initiated “ghost protocol,” so Ethan and company gain an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and go rogue to stop Soviet madman Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from starting World War III.

Bird, making his foray into live-action after a memorable stint with 1999’s “The Iron Giant,” 2004’s “The Incredibles,” and 2007’s “Ratatouille,” will make Michael Bay cry in his sleep. Compare “M: I – GP” to any headache Bay has helmed, and you’ll notice the difference between gripping us at the edge of our seats versus pummelling us into submission. From the very first shot, the camerawork is fluid, the action thrilling, and the effects seamlessly integrated. Of the film’s many enjoyable stunts, the one in Dubai really makes the palms sweat and forces vertigo to set in. Mr. Cruise scaling the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, to the 130th floor with a pair of thermo gloves. When most action movies attempt a dangerous stunt, it feels as fake as someone flying in front of a green-screen, but Bird seems to actually be dangling his movie star just for our own visceral pleasure. You know safety wires were probably erased in post, and that Mr. Cruise will not go splat! to the cement, but one can practically feel the wind whipping in your ears. It’s a fantastically hairy showstopper. There’s also a giddily tense scheme to swipe the codes from the Kremlin’s archival room using a hallway illusion gadget; an awesome chase through a sandstorm in Dubai; and a goofily over-the-top countdown-until-annihilation climax set in an automated parking garage. Even based on Bird’s animation background, the opening credits—with Michael Giacchino’s music score mixed with the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme—feel right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Reminding us in last year’s “Knight and Day” that he’s not going anywhere, Cruise proves again he’s still a movie star and stuntman. Just shy of fifty, he has such a magnetic presence and charisma, and tops all of the stunts he’s done before. Also a bonus, none of Cruise’s vain celebrity or bizarre Scientology persona gets in the way of his Ethan Hunt character. Pegg returns from the last “Mission” as Benji, the very welcome comic relief. Two new additions to the team are Patton, sexy and athletic with inner conflict as the lone female agent (who gets to kick ass with a pouty female French assassin), and the good-looking Renner, adding more magnetism as Brandt. Playing villain Cobalt, Nyqvist (who played Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) isn’t the most interesting villain, but he functions just fine.

Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec don’t really link any reason to why Ethan’s team must globetrot from Russia to Dubai to Mumbai, but when it comes down to Bird’s spectacular staging and sense of pacing, narrative holes don’t really matter. Moments of exposition and character-building give the film some substance but never let the pacing droop or lag. And 133 minutes just fly by. Big and a whole lot of fun, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is an exhilarating rush, and far and away the most consistently paced.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
133 min., rated PG-13.

The latest in a neverending cycle of nuclear-holocaust/post-apocalypse flicks, “The Divide,” is an unrelenting nasty and something of an interesting failure. Having brought us 2007’s empty Hollywood junk “Hitman” and 2007’s brutal French torture-porn “Frontier(s),” French director Xavier Gens sure knows how to turn on a blood shower as well as Eli Roth. The man is no hack, but beyond a gripping scenario that raises the stakes and sustains a palpable intensity, it’s a bad sign when you just want to shout “Can’t we all just get along” and then take a hammer to every character on screen.

After a nuclear bomb drops and destroys the outside world, a group of tenants race down to the basement bomb shelter of their apartment building. There’s Eva (Lauren German) and her emasculated boyfriend Sam (Iván González); Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and her daughter Wendi (Abbey Thickson); brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes), who are as different as oil and water; Josh’s punk buddy Bobby (Michael Eklund); and security guard Delvin (Courtney B. Vance). The super, Mickey (Michael Biehn), seals the door to the bunker with duct tape, forbidding anyone from opening it and exposing them to a lethal radiation dust. He makes it clear that he’s in charge, having prepared a stockpile of canned food and water, blankets, and weapons but also holding out on the group with a private room. Then once some armed soldiers in biohazard suits break in, attacking the group and kidnapping Wendi, everyone slowly turns on one another and slip into degrading, violent struggles for power. Needless to say, things get Lord of the Flies, and as these survivors grow more feral and even less uncivilized, the dead and dying are the lucky ones.

Grim, depraved, and with more human degradation than you can shake a stick at, “The Divide” still draws us in from Gens knowing how to make an audience squirm. Of the few effective scenes, there is one notably tense sequence, where Josh puts on one of the biohazard suits and strays out to the other side, which has been sealed off with a tunnel. The sound design so carefully focuses on the character’s breathing. Otherwise, Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean’s screenplay paints the characters with broad-brush strokes and amounts to people attacking their end-of-the-world roommates in cruel, sadistic, and base ways, shaving their heads, and literally barking like dogs. The character dynamics start as human nature deteriorating, until you can just see the director egging his cast on to cut off fingers and chop bodies into pieces.

Given that the actors ran their own asylum with some ad-libbing, the performances are credibly overwrought. German has Tough Final Girl in her veins, a role that was immediately established for her when she snipped off Roger Bart’s manhood in 2007’s “Hostel: Part II.” Her Eva has the most compassion in these dire times and uses self-preservation to stay alive, but why are her and Sam so distant? As the cavemen-like alliance, Ventimiglia and Eklund put their lean bodies to frightening use, chewing the scenery to shreds and then spitting it out. On the distaff side, Arquette takes one for the team in a bleary, fearless act of skin-baring and naked emotion. She goes through the wringer as the benumbed Marilyn and becomes a 24-hour play thing for the scummy men.

Being a dingy film about a nuclear holocaust, it’s as much of a bummer as “The Road” and “Melancholia.” It disturbs, but to what end? It isn’t fueled with much feeling or empathy for any of its characters. We’re given musical cues to manipulate our emotions, but they aren’t much use. As pleasant as eating can after can of baked beans in a cockroach-infested basement, the experience becomes awfully repetitive and unpleasant. In the end, a character escapes the basement through a septic tank. Sitting through the last hour of “The Divide” starts to feel like wading through that same waste excretion.

The Divide (2012)
122 min., rated R.

Home Culture New On DVD/Blu-ray: "Shame," "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," and "The Divide"