Shame, Steve McQueen, 99 mins (18)
Margin Call, J C Chandor, 105 mins (15)

My name is Brandon, and I'm addicted to sex. But enough about me...

Steve McQueen's Hunger was one of the boldest debuts of recent years – and it was no fluke.

The director's follow-up is just as daring and distinctive, and it has another carved-in-granite title – Shame – even if its central character, again played by Michael Fassbender, would seem to be a world away from a hunger-striking IRA man.

To his friends and colleagues, Fassbender's Brandon is a charming, talented alpha male. He lives in a smartly minimalist Manhattan apartment, and he works for a firm which does something unspecified, but clearly lucrative, in a skyscraping office block. But, like the similarly buff, well-groomed Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, he has a secret life. As you'll already have heard, Brandon is a sex addict, one so consumed by his urges that he resorts to prostitutes, internet porn, and surreptitious stress-relief in an office toilet cubicle several times a day. And unfortunately for him, he has a sister (Carey Mulligan) who is as loud and messy as he is quiet and controlled. When she crashes in his apartment – and "crashes" is the word – his sleek façade starts to crack.

Shame is stranger than that summary might suggest. Never settling into the rhythms of a conventional film, it shuffles some scenes into disorientating montages, and lets others run on for several minutes without a single cut. Not a moment goes by without McQueen reaching for something eerier and more stylish than you're expecting.

Still, audiences will probably leave the cinema talking about the editing and the camerawork (and the copious nudity) instead of the characters. It may have been inspired of McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan (who has also adapted Birdsong for the screen – see The New Review cover), to make a film about a sex addict which doesn't contain a single discussion of his condition, but their restraint keeps us at a distance. We never learn anything about Brandon that we haven't picked up in the mesmeric opening half-hour, so Shame at times seems like a video art project – as befits McQueen's background – rather than a feature. It tells us more about its director's abilities than about Brandon. Luckily, but those abilities are enough to make it well worth seeing.

Margin Call introduces us to more of Manhattan's masters of the universe. It's set in the high-rise offices of a Wall Street investment firm on the eve, literally, of 2008's financial crash. When the head of risk assessment, Stanley Tucci, is made redundant – in a scene more acidic than the entire two hours of Up in the Air – he entrusts his protégé, Zachary Quinto, with a file of half-finished calculations. That night, Quinto joins up the dots and discovers that if the stock market has the slightest wobble, it'll tip the company into a chasm of debt.

J C Chandor, a first-time writer-director, has made a laudably grown-up film, with enough Mamet-like wit to attract a phenomenal cast, including Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons. But it doesn't quite develop into either a gripping drama or an enlightening guide to our current economic woes.

What happens is that Quinto explains the situation again and again to his bosses, and then they mull over their strategy, like the hard-working, well-meaning professionals that they are. There's the odd threat along the lines of "If I go down, you're coming with me", but it doesn't lead to anything, and more often the characters talk about how shocked they are that their naive good intentions have ruined so many lives – although not theirs, obviously. Margin Call asks us to feel the pain of these multimillionaire bankers. But why should we? It's not as if they feel ours.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber goes into battle with Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus

Also Showing: 15/01/2012

Tatsumi (96 mins, 15)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi – Japan's answer to Will Eisner – is a writer-artist who pioneered gekiga comic strips for older readers in the 1950s. Eric Khoo's tender tribute to Tatsumi intercuts five of his noirish short stories with excerpts from his humble autobiography, using a style of animation that's based closely on his drawings. A must-see for anyone interested in manga, and a fascinating primer for everyone else.

A Useful Life (67 mins)

This deadpan, black-and-white Uruguayan comedy is an antidote to all those films about the glamour of the movies. Its jowly hero (imagine Alfred Molina dressed up as Simon Bates) has managed the same rundown art-house cinema for 25 years, but its declining fortunes may force him to venture into the real world. It's a film that will delight hardcore cineastes, while making them question just how useful they are being in their lives.

The Darkest Hour (89 mins, 12A)

Laughable alien-invasion B-movie in which some brattish American kids (Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella) run around Moscow dodging invisible monsters. Let's hope the survival of the human race doesn't depend on people who can stand outside St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square and wail, "We're lost!"

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