Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Recent Movie Roundup 16

The films of 2011 are coming in hard and fast this February, a deluge before the pre-spring effects films of 2012 show up.  There are still a few of last year's films yet to come, but here are my thoughts on the most recent batch.
  1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) - I gulped down Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel a few years ago, but for all that I couldn't put the book down, I also couldn't get around my core difficulty with it--that a story purporting to discuss the difficulties of motherhood and the way that women feel pressured into it oversimplified itself by deciding that the title character was born evil.  Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Shriver's novel addresses and defuses this difficulty by leaning into it, suggesting at almost every turn that Kevin, who just before his sixteenth birthday shot half a dozen students at his school, and his mother Eva (a magnificent Tilda Swinton), who narrates the novel and is the film's main character, are inhuman and perhaps even demonic. By stepping away from Eva's point of view, so dominant in the book, Ramsay let's us see that Eva is not only as bad at being a mother as Kevin was at being a human being, but that they have more in common with one another than they do with anyone around them.

    The film returns again and again to images of damnation.  The opening scene introduces us to Eva as part of a writhing mass of bodies slathered in thick red tomato paste (establishing the film's slightly overdone fascination with the color red, which also appears in jam, paint, and of course blood).  In a later scene, set after the shooting has occurred, Eva drives home on Halloween and flinches repeatedly as her headlights illuminate children in monstrous costumes, creating the sense of that she is surrounded by ghouls.  But these images are also complicated--Eva is in ecstasy, not agony, at the tomato festival, and the costumed children are entirely innocuous while Eva's own normal-seeming child was the true monster.  Most importantly, the film's most stifling sense of damnation is actually to be found in those scenes that establish Eva's comfortable, middle class life before Kevin destroys it--a life that Eva only tolerates because of her love for her painfully conventional husband Franklin (John C. Reilly, who on paper is an obvious choice for this role but somehow doesn't work here, perhaps because it's hard to imagine him and Swinton as a couple, and the film doesn't work hard enough to establish their relationship), and that Kevin reviles.  Ramsay's adaptation thus shows us Eva and Kevin as, simultaneously, devils whose presence poisons their quiet suburban community, and lost souls wandering through a hell of their own making.

    The film is impressionistic, cutting sharply between past and present, hazy recollection and cold fact.  Even more interesting is Ramsay's choice to cut away from the most dramatic and gruesome moments of the story, chiefly the murders at the school, alluding to them only obliquely, or concentrating on their lead-up and aftermath without showing the event itself.  Both of these choices may mean that people who have not read the book will find themselves a bit lost (though as someone who did read the book I thought the film's main weakness as an adaptation was that losing the structure of Eva's letters to Franklin had the effect of defanging the story's final twist), but they, and Swinton's performance as someone who is both pitiable and offputting, help to create a troubling and deeply affecting movie.

  2. Margin Call (2011) - I went into this film expecting a fictionalized take on the early hours of the financial crisis, and nominally that is what Margin Call delivers.  But the film takes it as a given that anyone watching it understands at least the basics of how the crisis came about, and the characters--analysts, traders, and executives at a brokerage house who realize what's coming just before the bubble pops--refer to the technical details in only the most oblique, generalized ways.  The film's emphasis is instead on the characters' emotional reactions to the catastrophe that they are about to experience--and in many ways, cause--which seems like a reasonable choice until one realizes just how narrow a gamut these reactions run.  Margin Call shows us its characters acting shocked at the realization that the party is over, shifting blame and trying to justify their failures, feeling sorry for themselves for the soft, cushioned fall (complete with gold parachute) they're about to experience, and justifying the choice to dump the firm's toxic assets on an unsuspecting Street before the crash happens.  Often these beats are well done, and the cast--anchored by Kevin Spacey as a grizzled veteran who struggles, and ultimately triumphs, over his conscience, Paul Bettany as his nihilistic underling, and Zachary Quinto as the analyst who first realizes what's coming--delivers some great moments, for example a late scene in which Spacey essentially bribes a room full of junior traders into wrecking their credibility and careers by knowingly selling a worthless product in order to save a company that plans to fire them all by the end of the day.  But ultimately there's just not enough material here to support a two hour film, and the film ends up repeating itself, delivering slight variations on the same scene again and again.  Even worse are the moments in which the film reaches for cheap sentimentality--when the characters lament the more productive, more constructive lives they might have led had they not gone into the business of making money, or when it borrows significance from history by having the characters muse ominously about the coming disaster and the people who are about to be destroyed by it.  There are moments of genuine sharpness in the film--right before they begin their fire sale, Quinto's character asks Spacey if he's spoken to his son.  Later we find out that the son is a trader for a rival firm who is badly burned by his father's actions.  But too often Margin Call chooses to hammer in its points, and seems to do so less because of their significance than because it ultimately doesn't have enough to say to fill its running time.

  3. The Artist (2011) - Every year there's at least one film that starts out as a plucky underdog buoyed by accolades on the festival circuit, parlays them into name recognition, and rides a wave of momentum all the way to the major league movie awards.  And every year around this time those of us who don't go to film festivals finally get to see that film and, almost invariably, leave the movie theater scratching our heads, wondering why such a slight, inoffensive work is gaining such enthusiastic acclaim.  This year that film is The Artist, currently a shoe-in for the best picture Oscar.  It's not that The Artist is bad.  It's a very sweet, very enjoyable, if slightly overlong movie, and its handling of its central gimmick, the fact that it is a black and white, silent movie, is skillful and intelligent.  Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius effortlessly eases a modern audience into the conventions of silent cinema in an early scene in which matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, perfectly channeling the smarmy charm of silent film icons like Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks) waits nervously for the audience's reaction to his latest picture.  The credits roll but the soundtrack doesn't change from its background music, which we assume means a deafening silence from the audience. Then George smiles in relief and the camera shows us the audience clapping enthusiastically, driving home the point that in this movie we can only rely on our eyes.  For the rest of the film Hazanavicius and his actors remain true to the conventions of silent film--the exaggerated gestures, the operatic emotions, and of course the title cards--without veering too far into over the top clowning and mugging.  (It is, however, amusing to note that as much as Hazanavicius expects to go along with these outdated conventions, he does not expect us to tolerate a fixed camera.  The film features plenty of tracking and crane shots, which would not have been possible in the 1920s.)

    After about half an hour of this, however, the novelty of The Artist's gimmick wears off.  What's left is a cross between Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born, in which the advent of talkies kills George's career just as his love interest Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, who as the saying goes does everything Dujardin does, backwards and in heels, and pretty much walks away with the movie) becomes a star.  But The Artist has little to add to these classics, and its version of their story is curiously eager to indulge George's self-absorption.  He spends the film either basking in his own wonderfulness or, once his career tanks, wallowing in self-pity, while Peppy is made to feel guilty both for her success and for her efforts to help George--which, we are told, wound his pride.  One senses that Hazanavicius wants us to view the end of the silent film era as a tragedy on a scale that justifies George's depression and his unwillingness to either accept the end of his career or adapt to new standards, but The Artist, for all its technical accomplishments, doesn't do enough to sell this argument.  On the contrary, its most effective scenes are the ones that utilize modern sound techniques--a nightmare in which everything around George makes noise but he still can't talk, or the movie's final scene--and drive home just how much this technology has contributed to our enjoyment of cinema.

  4. Take Shelter (2011) - I thought this film would be a companion piece to Melancholia, but instead it feels like a counterpoint.  Melancholia establishes, almost from its outset, that it can be read as either a genre work or an allegory, and draws its strength from the way those two readings clash against each other.  Take Shelter keeps its genre closet to its chest, and most of the tension of the film is drawn from our uncertainty about which reading protocol to apply to it.  Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Sam (Jessica Chastain) are a working class couple with a young daughter whose life seems charmed--Curtis has a steady job, they have a nice house and take yearly vacations at the beach, but most of all they love and cherish one another.  Then Curtis starts having terrible nightmares about a storm that will destroy his home, turn his friends and neighbors against him, and endanger his family.  Even as considers the possibility of mental illness, Curtis is so overcome by these visions (which soon start creeping into his waking life) that he begins building a storm shelter in his back yard, and soon becomes obsessed with it, alienating and terrifying Sam and their daughter.

    It's pretty easy to read Take Shelter as an allegory.  The film places a huge emphasis on Curtis's role as a provider, and in its early, happy segments, his good life is largely defined by being financially secure--Curtis and Sam are up to date on their loan payments, and the insurance that has just kicked in from his job will pay for their daughter's cochlear implant.  Curtis's visions of calamity are also strongly shadowed by a more mundane, and more present, financial calamity that he courts by building the storm shelter--he takes out a risky loan to pay for the shelter, and when he loses his job because of it the money for the surgery is lost.  Especially in this present moment, it's tempting to take the film as a depiction of the state of the American working class, poised on a knife's edge and ready to plunge into poverty at the slightest setback--to which Curtis's anxieties seem like a reasonable reaction.  Though there is some truth to this reading, it also feels a little glib, and doesn't quite account for the film's Donnie Darko-ish sense of portent.  We're left, therefore, with a sense of unease as Take Shelter proceeds towards its conclusion, not knowing what to root for.  If Curtis us merely delusional then the film might come off as mocking a character who despite his obsessive behavior is deeply sympathetic, but to reveal that he was right would be an equal mockery of the ultimately blameless (and entirely reasonable) people around him.  Take Shelter's final fifteen minutes, and its solution to this dilemma, reveal the film as neither a genre work nor a psychological drama, but a love story.  In all his visions Curtis faces calamities without Sam (in one of them she even attacks him), and in his waking life he conceals from her, for as long as he can, both his dreams and his reactions to them.  This is due partly to machismo, partly to a fear that Sam will leave him, but mainly because there is a lesson that Curtis needs to learn.  The film's final minutes reveal that both his and Sam's greatest asset is their devotion to one another--even, and especially, when they don't trust each other's judgment.  It is that devotion, Take Shelter concludes, that will allow them to endure any calamity they encounter.

  5. Another Earth (2011) - 2011 seems to have been the year of the genre-tinged psychological drama in which troubled characters look up at the sky and see a slowly-approaching menace, but perhaps because of the way it incorporates the fantastic into its world, Another Earth is the only one of these films to have been generally discussed as a science fiction film.  Unlike Melancholia, there's no incongruence here between the fantastic and mimetic aspects of the film--the appearance of a second Earth, seemingly populated with our doubles, in the solar system is handled in a low-key but largely realistic fashion and folded into the film's story.  And unlike Take Shelter, the film doesn't leave space for a symbolic or allegorical reading that would defuse the strangeness of its central concept.  Earth 2 symbolizes many things to the film's characters, most importantly a chance for heroine Rhoda (a magnificent Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the script) to escape her feelings of guilt and shame over a car accident that left a woman and child dead, but the film makes clear that this is a meaning Rhoda and others are imposing on what is actually a perfectly real, perfectly ordinary--but for the circumstances of its appearance--planet.

    There's no way around reading Another Earth as a science fiction film, which is actually a bit of a shame, because the film is weakest when viewed through a genre lens.  The filmmakers don't seem very interested in developing their premise in SFnal directions, touching only lightly on the social and scientific implications of Earth 2, and it's only at the very end of the film that the presence of this fantastic element in their lives opens doors that a naturalistic story couldn't.  The film works a lot better, though, if you take it as a drama with just a sprinkling of science fiction.  Before the accident derailed her life, Rhoda was an aspiring scientist, and Marling ably conveys, with a minimum of dialogue, Rhoda's unquenchable scientific curiosity, as well as her belief that she no longer deserves to pursue an interest that gave her so much joy, creating an unusual and compelling character.  The relationship she strikes up with John (William Mapother), the man whose family she killed, is more than a little by the numbers, but well drawn despite this, and just as the film seems to paint itself into a corner frequented by so many other indie films about grief and misery, the fantastic element of Earth 2 offers the characters, and the film, another out.  Of the three films to play with the intersection of genre and realism in 2011, Another Earth is probably the least successful, but it is nevertheless worth watching for Rhoda, and for Marling's performance.

  6. Haywire (2011) - In my corner of the internet this film has been touted mainly as an action film that not only has a solo female lead, but whose lead is played by an actress who looks like she might be able to throw a punch, and actually knows how to do so.  Which is all true, but what the emphasis on heroine Mallory Kane, a private security contractor who is framed and sets out to find out who is responsible and why, and her portrayer, MMA fighter Gina Carano, obscures is that Haywire is also a Steven Soderbergh film, and that his pedigree guarantees certain things.  So, like most of Soderbergh's films, Haywire is low-key and a little light on plot, quite deliberately averse to the melodramatic tropes of its genre, stylish, and a little bit empty.  The film is essentially a series of set pieces, in each of which Mallory squares off against a male antagonist who either wants to kill her or bed her, but will usually plump for the former just to be safe.  These are all well done, but they peak relatively early in a sequence in which Mallory is matched against Michael Fassbender, playing a British intelligence agent named Paul.  It's clear that Paul is relying on his own considerable charms, and on the fact that she's been dragooned into playing the slightly unfamiliar role of high-society eye candy, to destabilize Mallory, which is in fact what happens.  But it soon becomes equally clear that Paul has underestimated Mallory's resilience and adaptability.  Her momentary discomfort, however, gives the character a hint of humanity that she lacks in the rest of the film, in which her competence starts shading into detachment.  By the end of the film, it's not even entirely clear why Mallory is working so hard to find all the men who framed her--she doesn't really seem that angry at them.  This isn't the first time that Soderbergh has jettisoned the emotional component of his film in order to stress style, but he usually compensates for this with a more substantial, wittier story than Haywire delivers.  It's nice to see a character like Mallory Kane on screen, but here's hoping that next time she gets a story that's worthy of her.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Chronicle

My review of the found footage superhero film Chronicle appears today at Strange Horizons.  I was initially dubious about mashing together two such tired concepts, but despite some weaknesses on the character front Chronicle revitalizes a subgenre I'd long since thought had lost its sense of immediacy.  Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

This is Getting to Be a Tradition

The 2011 Locus poll is open, and for the fourth year running Locus is giving non-subscribers half a vote for every subscriber vote (actually it's for the fifth year running, but in 2008 the change was made retroactively, after the votes had been received and tallied).  I wrote about this at greater length in 2010 and 2011, so I'll just be brief this year: I don't plan to vote for an award whose organizers think I'm only worth half a vote, and if you're not a Locus subscriber, I don't think you should vote in the poll either.

I should also say that I've been considering purchasing a Locus subscription for my Kindle, but that much like last year, the fact that this miserable voting system hasn't yet been rolled back leaves me utterly disinclined to give Locus my money.

In happier, but still Locus-related news, Liz has a great list of links to the stories on the Locus recommended reading list that are available online.