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.

Melancholia

* * * 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.

Full 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.

Full 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.

Full review at EFC.

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