Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Previews (at the time): Melancholia, The Descendants, and Into the Abyss

There was going to be another preview on this post (or the next), but I missed out on Sunday's ArtsEmerson member screening of The Muppets. Funny thing was, I told other people about it. If I ever find out that I lost my seat to one of those people, I'm going to be kind of annoyed. Not hugely so, since they probably brought little kids, but a little (more at myself than the other person). I also saw someone showing up at the Paramount Theater with the big orange boxes used to ship film prints these days, and it sort of crossed my mind that this might have been the best chance to see it on film, at least until I saw it would open at Somerville.

But, enough about what I didn't see, and more on what I did! I saw these three previews on three consecutive days, but at three different theaters as part of three different programs: Melancholia was at the Coolidge as part of the somewhat pricy Talk Cinema program and featured post-film discussion moderated by Boston Phoenix film editor Peter Keogh; The Descendants was a free preview as part of the Brattle Theater's & Chlotrudis Society's CineCaché program (though folks who had paid for a season pass got priority seating) with a discussion led by the Brattle's Ned Hinkle and Chlotrudis's Michael Colford; and Into the Abyss was a deal where Landmark asks people on their mailing list to register and then over-books the theater, with no discussion. So, as usual, I'd like to apologize to anybody whose ideas made their ways into my Melancholia and Descendants reviews as if they were my own; I don't mean to be a thief. There was a little non-me overlap between screenings, but not a whole lot.

Which is kind of nice, if only because it probably meant that I only saw one movie with the Into the Abyss crowd. It wasn't a particularly poorly-behaved crowd, really, but it did tend toward a little bit of big-city snobbery, with a tendency to laugh at the people Werner Herzog interviewed for this film, many of whom were from Texas and spoke with an accent and maybe weren't quite so educated and fortunate as the people in the audience. It's not the first time I've seen a boutique-house audience do this, and I know I'm not immune from feeling superior to people with backgrounds less privileged than my own, but giggling at everyone in the movie seems to cross a line to me, especially when I think one of the points of the movie is that there's societal and structural problems here, and the audience is taking the people who have to deal with it first-hand lightly.

This probably annoys me more than it should, admittedly, but looking down on people who are probably just as sincere and capable as oneself but got started with fewer opportunities isn't cool.

The discussions at the other two films were good, especially with Melancholia. It was noteworthy (to me) for the contrast in moderation style between Keogh and Ty Burr (who had hosted the previous two screenings in the series). Burr writes for the Boston Globe, while Keogh's Phoenix is the local alternative weekly, and that seemed to carry over to how they spoke in person, with Burr very straightforward while Keogh had more freedom to work a bon mot or two into every sentence. Thankfully, he managed to avoid spending much time on how Lars Trier made more than a bit of an ass of himself at Cannes; the discussion was inevitably going to be a bit of a referendum on Trier anyway, but at least this way the focus remained on his films more than his personality.

The comparisons to Antichrist and other movies mostly flew over my head (I'm not sure I've seen anything he's done aside from Dogville, which was enough), but a good chunk of the discussion went to how, SPOILERS! in the second half, Justine couldn't leave the grounds, and Claire eventually found herself in the same boat. I'm guessing that's another metaphor for despair; while Claire is capable for much of the movie, she eventually succumbs to the same kind of crippling inability to act as her sister. Another thing that Keogh brought up that I'm not exactly sure about was how Kiefer Sutherland's character was akin to a climate-change denier, and I kind of think he was off the mark there. I never got the impression that he was only believing what he wanted to; in fact, we just don't have enough information to know whether his optimism or Claire's fear was more prevalent, and in a way it doesn't matter - he just has to be wrong on this crucial thing and collapse completely because of it.

Aside: The science of how Melancholia destroys the Earth is kind of ridiculous. Given the relative size of the planets, there's no way Earth should be making it do a loop-de-loop while staying in its own orbit, and if its pass is going to be close enough to siphon off enough of the atmosphere that people near sea level are feeling shortness of breath (as even Jack says was predicted), that's still a global catastrophe in its own right, in that people at altitude are screwed and we're probably losing the ionosphere and ozone layer, and that's before you get to tidal effects. It's roughly as dumb as Another Earth though more tolerable because it's not shoving the audience's face in it all the time, but still - gravity is not that difficult a concept; how hard is getting it right? !SRELIOPS

Aside to the aside: Obviously, Melancholia uses a similar plot device to Another Earth, but another good comparison is Marth Marcy May Marlene, in that the central family dynamics of the two movies are awfully close (psychologically damaged girl, sister who wants to help but isn't up to the challenge, brother-in-law who says nice things but really doesn't want this to be his problem). It's sort of what you'd get if the two movies mated.

It's likely that more of the Descendants discussion made it into my review than with Melancholia, just because it wasn't quite so scene-specific and spoilery. There was a lot of love for Alexander Payne, who is very good, although I wonder if the long layoff between Sideways and The Descendants boosts his reputation a bit more than it deserves. He's made good movies, sure, intelligent contemporary dramas for adults in a time when it's more difficult to get them made than it should be, but I seem to recall that Sideways was often thought of as "well done, but lightweight" on its initial release while the script for the new one has a few problems.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Talk Cinema)

As hooks go, it's tough to beat the one Lars von Trier uses to start Melancholia: The world ends in such slow motion that time almost seems to be standing still. It's a fantastic scene of planetary destruction, and also gives the audience a close enough look at the family who will be the film's focus for the next two hours to assure them that even though this may be it for visual effects until the end, there's still plenty of opportunity for catastrophe on a smaller scale.

The next image is actually almost as memorable: A stretch limousine that is too long to navigate a bend in the road. That limo carries newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) to their wedding reception, where Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) await at the mansion (large enough for the back yard to be an eighteen-hole golf course). The reception is the type that would be a test of endurance even without the baggage being brought by the guests: Justine's father (John Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling) use a captive audience to belittle each other and the institution of marriage; her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) announces that she's been promoted and then has his nephew (Brady Corbet) hound her for one last thing before the honeymoon; and Claire feels the need to remind Justine not to make a scene. And then, in the aftermath, Justine notices that Antares seems to have disappeared from the sky. It's being transited by a previously unknown planet, which will be named "Melancholia" and pass by Earth a few months later.

Rather a pessimistic name for a new world, but one which gives us more than a hint to Justine's true disposition early on. The exact pathology of her mental illness is not spelled out, but though her issues can remain hidden, they are large and have a tremendous gravitational pull of their own. This is apparently something that von Trier has personal experience with, and his script does an excellent job of using the wedding to smother his heroine: Everything is too big, there are arbitrary demands being made of her constantly, and even the family members who know her condition don't really understand. Even in the middle of what should be a joyous occasion and with the best efforts of her new husband, true happiness seems hard or impossible, and later, well, it's really going to just be too much.

While von Trier pours all of that into the script, Kirsten Dunst is the one tasked with getting most of it out, and she's just fantastic. Sure, in the second half, she's given a change in costume and cosmetics that reinforces just how worn-down and haggard she feels, but it's almost like she's fighting the almost-comically sexy wedding dress in the first half: Without being too broad or winking a contrast, there's a palpable conflict between Justine and the person she's expected to be - although it's pretty easy to tell when she's genuinely enjoying a moment and when she's trying to put on a happy face. There's exhaustion and resignation when she speaks, but never in excess.

With Justine relatively passive at points, the rest of the cast does get a chance to shine. Charlotte Gainsbourg has a less showy role, but she anchors a great deal of the movie as the sister who, while perhaps not as luminous as her sister, is practical and loving. Gainsbourg plays her as able to defend Justine as sick but barely holding back her frustration in adjacent moments. Kiefer Sutherland makes an interesting contrast to her, in that John's most notable characteristic is a short temper, but he does very well with making the moments where we see John's better nature count.

Indeed, for all that the supporting cast is filled with minor monsters while even the main characters have prominent ugly streaks not very far below the surface, Trier seems less interested in tormenting the audience than usual. Sure, the opening is so gaudily slow that it's only the music that keeps the audience from wondering if there's something wrong with the projector, and there's a moment toward the end which seems to exist only to make Claire and Justine seem shallower and meaner than the rest of the film implies, but they're isolated moments. For a long movie that consists of two scenarios where not a lot happens, it's smooth enough sailing for even this notoriously impatient viewer, and Manuel Alberto Claro's photography is often downright gorgeous. And while the script has some needlessly dumb science, its ambiguities are well-constructed enough that to work however the audience is inclined to interpret them.

Of course, Lars van Trier is still Lars van Trier, and even though this is, for him, a fairly accessible film, there's still a number of potentially off-putting ingredients. He's still the sort of guy who fills a movie with miserable people for the express purpose of making the end of the world not entirely a downer ending. But there is something hopeful and positive underneath all that, and it's worth finding.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

The Descendants

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché)

The Descendants is, I suppose, a movie about trust and responsibility, although I'm not getting very far trying to boil it down to parallel situations and easy lessons. That's okay, though; this lets director Alexander Payne put a naturally smooth leading man like George Clooney into a situation that's all corners - something he handles better than expected.

Clooney plays Matt King, whose last name is apt in that he's a direct descendant of a Hawaiian princess (although the Polynesian blood has apparently been diluted during the last century and a half). As a lawyer and head of the family, he's in charge of divesting one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land on the archipelago, and the whole state is anxiously awaiting his decision about whether to take more money from a Chicago-based developer or go with a somewhat smaller offer from a local businessman. He, however, has issues much more close to home to worry about: His wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident, and the doctors inform him that she's not going to wake up. A self-described "back-up parent" to two daughters, he now finds himself having to deal with ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and sixteen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) acting out on top of informing family and friends of Elizabeth's condition. Oh, and to make matters worse, Alex tells him that Elizabeth was cheating on him.

This movie is based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and I suspect that the Kings' spendthrift cousins and the question of what to do with the land was much more prominent in the original book. Here, the disposition of the ancestral land mainly serves as a reason for strangers to be nosy and remind the audience that Matt's got a lot on his plate, at least for the bulk of the running time. It does eventually get tied in with the story of Matt trying to sort out his reactions to his wife's infidelity, but that connection feels a little contrived (it's more than a bit of a small-world coincidence). In the end, both are perhaps about Matt trying to figure out what he owes to people he can't converse with and on the one hand and how to guide his family on the other, but establishing these themes in both stories does cut into the time that could be spent really exploring them in either.

ortunately, Payne spends the bulk of his his time on Matt and his more immediate family and does some interesting things there. One choice he makes that may not be particularly unusual but is certainly one I don't recall seeing before is how he presents Elizabeth in the hospital; where most coma patients on film seem comfortable and serene, she looks stiff and twisted, perhaps to make a starker contrast to the beautiful Hawaiian scenery outside. He avoids any sort of flashback that would allow the audience to get to know Elizabeth or see what sort of straits her and Matt's marriage was in; it also means that when people tell Alexandra that she's a lot like her mother, we've got no context for whether it's a good or bad thing.

And, of course, he sticks George Clooney in just about every scene, which almost never hurts. Clooney has a natural charisma and self-assurance to him, although he mostly brings that out when doing narration - the narration, after all, is the stuff that his character knows - and as an occasionally snarky false face when dealing with other people. Much of the rest of the time, he's showing uncertainty, even running funny to show that there are cracks in his veneer. He's working with a couple of impressive young actresses in many of his scenes, too. Shailene Woodley gives a mirror of Clooney's performance, in that while Matt is in much more turmoil than he lets on, Alex has things much more together than anyone is ready to believe. We see a lot of Matt in Alex, actually, and looking at the rest probably gives us some idea about Elizabeth. Amara Miller is often playing something of a generic weird kid or brat, but she's a believable one and good when she has to be.

The rest of the cast are given less intricate characters to play as well, which can lead to some too-broad performances. Nick Krause isn't entirely to blame for a little of Alex's friend Sid going a long way, but he sure does manage to slide right into a character designed to get on Matt's nerves. Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel are playing off-beat friends of the family, and it's not a great loss when those quirky comedy characters disappear as the movie gets more serious. On the other hand, Robert Forster is great as Elizabeth's father, a tightly clenched fist of a man who is likely a good man underneath his anger but is not in the best place to show it. Toward the end, there are a couple of really nice surprises in Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer, who make Matt's confrontation with his wife's lover much more interesting than one might expect based upon their previous work.

It's a pretty film, of course; the Hawaiian settings basically mean that cinematographer Phedon Papamichael just has to set up his camera and point in any direction to capture a nice landscape; the matching music does a nice job of keeping things to the proper scale. Everything about the film does that, really; it's enjoyable in large part for not trying to be more or less than it is.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

Into the Abyss

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (preview)

Werner Herzog is enjoying a late-career burst of productivity that would make many younger filmmakers jealous, and he's managed to do so in part by switching between fiction and documentary, tackling whichever new subject piques his interest, often at the ends of the world or the edge of madness. Into the Abyss is almost conventional by his standards - the triple homicide and later incarceration of the killers it covers is sadly common - but like many documentaries, it's as much about how the filmmaker looks at the subject as it is the death penalty itself.

The crime is ugly, a pair of teenagers breaking into nurse Sandra Stotler's house looking to steal a car, murdering her, her son James, and his friend Jeremy Richardson. The police would catch the two in about a week, with Jason Burkett receiving a life sentence while Michael Perry is sentenced to death. Ten years later, in 2010, Herzog talks with them on the eve of Perry's execution, also visiting the crime scenes and meeting with their families and those of the victims, trying to get some context for what seem like two monstrous acts - the second being Perry's upcoming execution.

Herzog is quite clear on that - he believes capital punishment to be an abhorrent practice and says so in no uncertain terms. There's a school of thought that considers this bad journalism, looking to hold a writer or documentary filmmaker to an impossible standard of impartiality, but what Herzog does is probably more effective as well as more honest; he lets the audience know his opinion early on so that we can see where his questions are coming from. He also leaves in the exchanges that maybe didn't give him the answers he wanted, and those are interesting moments; the audience sees Herzog as a filmmaker trying to make his point but also documenting what the actual situation is.

That's just one way in which Herzog demonstrates himself to be a good host and interviewer. He is, as always, broadly curious, willing to talk to a broad range of people and allowing their words to bring him to the next question. Certainly, some of what comes across as interesting give and take is likely canny editing, but it's still impressive to see him pick up on someone mentioning squirrels on the golf course and follow that, of all things, to a very emotional moment. He speaks respectfully to all involved, injecting his own views, but in a way that draws his subjects out rather than putting them on the defensive.

The dicussions themselves are interesting, too. The level of poverty and petty criminality is at times jarring for a middle-class audience - Herzog seems legitimately thrown to find out that the brother of one victim only learned to read while in prison in his twenties. We see people who have had their entire family ripped away in ways that fiction writers would tone down because they just seem absurdly tragic and unbelievable and people who work(ed) in the process of execution who seem shaken by what they've been a part of. A number of interviews take place through glass in prison visiting rooms, and though the environment is similar, they make for fascinating contrasts - Perry seems to smile way too much for someone facing imminent execution while Burkett seems self-aware if not quite contrite, and Herzog nudges us to compare our reactions to the pair. A comment from Burkett leads to interviewing his father, and both an explicit and implied indictment of how broken the system is.

"Into the Abyss" doesn't rail about the death penalty the way one might expect, and doesn't end with an impassioned plea. It maybe doesn't make as sharp a point as the filmmakers may have intended. But that's somewhat fitting in a way, as the destructive pointlessness of it all is one of Herzog's recurring themes here.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

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