Melancholia (2011)

I suppose Melancholia is science fiction. It consists of two long halves after a wonderful prologue. In the first half, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are just married. They are playful and happy as they arrive for their lavish reception at the vast country estate that is the home of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). There is much familiar upper-crust domestic drama, but it becomes apparent that Justine is suffering from horrific depression, her behavior increasingly unpredictable and outlandish. We are left as helpless as Michael to prevent her from being overtaken entirely by her malaise.

In the second half, washed out after the richly colorful reception, we focus on John and Claire, their young son, and Justine. As Justine recuperates, they live under the shadow of the imminent arrival in Earth’s vicinity of a planet Melancholia. John’s position is of scientific wonderment. He insists that the experts have declared no risk of a collision and educates his son in his amateur astronomy. Claire reads conspiratorial websites that predict apocalyptic doom (in the movie technology tradition, the scenes of her internet search for information are jarringly unrealistic). As time goes on and the situation grows dire, Justine, like a see-saw, the role of the calm, sensible realist as those around her shrink in fear.

Ultimately then we can contrast Justine’s breakdown at the reception and Claire’s breakdown in the face of death, and, parallel, the reaction of each to the other. Is Justine growing absolutely in strength as disaster approaches, or only relative to Claire? She is as resilient to terror in the second half as she is drained of all high emotion in the first. It is telling that Claire is tender and indulgent of Justine, but as her own anxiety grows, Justine refuses to coddle or reassure her. Justine’s bluntness seems almost shaded with a slight vindictiveness. It is horribly obvious that the sisters are worlds apart mentally, that Claire’s terror and Justine’s depression are entirely dissimilar. It is remarkable that the tangible, rational distress of second-half Claire never for a moment trivializes Justine’s illness: Justine’s outlandish behavior at the reception seems easier to grasp after we see the collapse of the first half’s healthier characters. All private distress gets equal billing.

The planet Melancholia is hinted at only very lightly in the first half of the film, although it is unambiguous, particularly in retrospect, that everyone is aware of it. Is life going on regardless? Despite its name, I wondered exactly how much to read it as a manifestation of her depression. For her to be summoning it would be too much of a stretch, but I got the feeling that Justine at least understands what it means for the people around her, maybe in some sense has already encountered it. By the time the private apocalypse is completed, it has proved that the pragmatic rationalist John and the kindly caregiver Claire are both utterly useless against it. But all along Justine it completely unfazed. Dunst shows Justine coming slowly into focus as she comes into her element, her brilliant portrait of depression complete.

The prologue: before the action of the movie begins, we open with a long sequence of exceptional and striking beauty. The entire film will take place on the vast country estate, and we see long, posed tableaux of the main players in their reception dress in various places around the estate. The shots are in agonizingly heavy slow motion, saturated with almost ultraviolet color, all incredibly rich, dark purples, greens and blacks. The sequence previews in an oblique and abstract way some of the touching points for the rest of the film. I found the whole effect entirely disarming and captivating. I would call it Gothic if that didn’t seem like such faint praise – it was somehow like the checkerboard in Lewis Carroll’s second “Alice” book “Through the Looking-Glass”, with the cast set up as helplessly immobile players as they went about their business with the world crashing around them.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic

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The Ides of March (2011)

“The Ides of March” follows the run-up to the Ohio Democratic primary, with Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, also directing) and Arkansas Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) the last two candidates standing. The race is close, and we learn that the winner will be the prohibitive favorite in the general election.

This is a formidable cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are the heads of the Morris and Pullman campaigns, Marisa Tomei is a New York Times reporter, Evan Rachel Wood a young intern. But this is not a broad, interlocking-pieces movie, instead focusing narrowly on Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the young media mastermind who is second-in-command of the Morris team. This somewhat defuses the potential for fast-paced scheming but lets us be disarmed as Myers is whenever news arrives and to weigh options alongside him when he has to make decisions.

I’m not sure how to take Myers. Is he a novice idealist or a skilled politico? We don’t get to see much evidence of the superior abilities that everyone – bosses, peers, competitors, flatterers – attribute to him. He is supposed to be smart, capable and experienced beyond his years, but he is easily outmaneuvered by his seniors and shows questionable judgment. To Tomei’s reporter he on the one hand claims idealism to distinguish himself from the well-worn Hoffman, but on the other insists that at the age of 30 he has worked on more campaigns than most others would by 40. It is a puzzle that is never fully resolved, as even Myers’ successes seem more reactive than proactive. Maybe he is more tactician than strategist.

Although it’s nice not to adhere strictly to the standard operating procedure of establishing the hero as an expert before challenging him, these unresolved questions become important because of Myers’ centrality. For a political drama to forgo both clear personal antagonism and complex intrigue is a refreshing risk, but in that case I would perhaps have preferred to know more about Myers.

In Gosling’s other recent starring feature “Drive” his no-name, no-background character is established as a meticulous expert, where here he is merely in charge, so that we somehow know both more and less about him. Here, as there, Gosling is wonderfully patient, with the best moments being when he is processing unexpected news but hasn’t yet reached a decision. Surely Myers – and the audience – can’t be learning for the first time that politics is a dirty business. Gosling’s performance and the unflinching focus on Myers form a good illustration of a point that on reflection should maybe be no less obvious: politics is a lonely business. The film opens with Myers alone on a stage, and ends with him alone in an interview chair, his face filling the screen, and that is really how it has to be all along.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic

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Rampart (2011)

Woody Harrelson is front and center in Oren Moverman’s “Rampart”, playing Dave Brown, a Los Angeles cop. We meet him in the familiar role of the uncompromising veteran, hazing a rookie officer and beating information out of a man in custody. He has the respect of his peers, although he displays it in an unusual way, quoting obscure (and possibly invented) legal precedent to paperwork-shuffling colleagues.

This is typical of his silver tongue, which we are treated to often. He is a wordy, funny and indignant conversationalist, especially when challenged, and the best moments in the film are his verbal spars. And he gets plenty of them, with a broad parade of women, lawyers, associates and antagonists. Brown has two daughters, one by each of two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), and all five live improbably together under a single roof: if anyone could have talked themselves into such an unusual arrangement, it would be someone with Brown’s gift of gab.

Yet he is capable of violent and vengeful anger. His troubles begin when his cruiser is sideswiped and he beats almost to death the offending driver. The act was somehow videotaped and is broadcast all over the news. Brown’s question is: why was the camera there? Was it a setup? In a different movie, he might have tried to find out, maybe discovered something, but here we aren’t even allowed to know whether there are any sinister motives at all. Brown doesn’t pursue it as any more than a paranoid accusation, and so instead we see only him as he goes on the defensive. The script is by Moverman and James Ellroy, but there is no “L.A. Confidential” intrigue here. I found it difficult to tell who was doing what to whom – if anything – which is a little frustrating, but I suppose Brown is going through the same thing.

The crucial question then is what drives Brown. He is not “Dirty Harry”, getting results and to hell with the rules: he is not getting results. We see him do no police work, unless the early “enhanced interrogation” counts. He is challenged throughout his increasing turmoil – by Sigourney Weaver’s desk cop, by the lawyers he looks to retain as his troubles deepen – to explain why he has to stay a police officer. Why not go quietly? His answers are never convincing. He seems wedded to a notion of himself as a solider and the job as a war.

But he is also broke, and maybe that explanation is the best. He certainly is highly protective of his unconventional family and seems to want to provide for them. While embroiled in the mess from the videotaped beating he seeks out a tip from a retired cop, a friend of Brown’s father, about a card game he can rob. The trouble goes from bad to worse as Brown’s plan goes badly awry, and his circle of suspicion expands. Harrelson shows Brown’s smooth-talking, in-charge swagger give way easily to pathetic desperation, with Brown hustling for money and scattering wild accusations. His words that were so impressive are useless or forgotten. At no point does he seem willing or able to really investigate what, if anything, is going on, not so much a dirty cop as just dirty.

Links: IMDb

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Coriolanus (2011)

Ralph Fiennes makes his debut as a director and stars in “Coriolanus”, adapted from the Shakespeare tragedy. Fiennes plays Roman general Caius Martius. We meet him as he quells grain riots at home and leads a siege and assault abroad, against Rome’s Volscian enemies on a Balkans-like urban battlefield. Martius is soaked in the blood of his enemies and seems at the height of his powers, pushing himself and exhorting his men. He clashes in single combat with Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the Volscian commander and Martius’ mortal enemy, until they are dragged apart. Everything we see shows Martius as tireless and relentless. What is driving him?

At home he is received as a hero and honored with a new name of Coriolanus. The home front wants a piece of him. First, his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and politician Menenius (Bryan Cox) maneuver to have him elected consul. He reluctantly agrees. He is approved by the Senate, but a popular riot is instigated by a rival faction. Martius is humble under praise, but explosively defensive under criticism – Fiennes’ proud anger is something to behold. Martius is provoked to fury at the mob, and ultimately exiled. He journeys to his rival Aufidius, and offers his life or his services against Rome.

In every case when someone tries to use Martius for their own ends, trouble follows. The efforts to use Martius as a political figurehead, the successful conspiracy to oust him, and Aufidius’ decision to retain him all bring mess that compounds towards tragedy. It seems most remarkable that Aufidius, who perhaps would know Martius’ motivation better than most, would agree to fight alongside him. Butler doesn’t have a huge amount to do in the film, but he sells well Aufidius’ dilemma, weighing whether he can get the better of Martius, using him while plotting his subsequent demise.

By now it is clear that Martius cannot be changed, so either he must succeed in his revenge or be stopped. Redgrave displays Volumnia, sent with Martius’ wife and son to try to stop him, beseeching in physical and emotional waves. Redgrave and Fiennes are captivating. Where Martius at war circled and parried when fighting Aufidius in battle, now he is pinned to his chair by Volumnia, bearing her relentlessness that seems so much like his own.

Despite the crackling dialogue in this confrontation and throughout the film, I found the most satisfying scenes those where we observed Martius alone: sweeping through a shell of a building in the opening combat, and hiking into exile away from Rome and to Aufidius. It is never quite explained why he is blamed for the grain riots that open the film, but he is unwavering in his self-belief, so we are forced, like the people, to take him or leave him without debate. His world is black and white, with only one correct, honorable path. When we see Martius with others they fill the scene with words, talking to, at or about him. Their words are bound to provoke him. Alone nothing disturbs him from within: he simply moves forward.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic

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God Bless America (2011)

Bobcat Goldthwait’s “God Bless America” played in the inimitable Midnight Madness at this year’s TIFF. Maybe it’s just safer to use Canada to open a story of a blood-soaked killing spree motivated by the alleged base evil of American popular culture. Thankfully the Midnight Madness stamp helps as a reminder not to take premises too seriously. I watched it as a caper rather than a satire, which is most definitely what I would recommend.

Frank (Joel Murray) is divorced and lives alone through a duplex wall from his loutish neighbors and their perpetually screaming baby. He fantasizes violence against them. He has trouble sleeping. His routine is to take sleeping pills and slump in insomniac stupor in front of a TV that shows shrill wall-to-wall reality TV: we are treated to broad parodies of the state of the art of that genre. The Kardashians come in for particularly harsh treatment. The targets are easy, but the jokes are so relentless that it doesn’t matter.

At work Frank’s colleagues spout recycled soundbites from talk radio and discuss the film’s version of “American Idol”. He fantasizes violence against them too. Frank delivers a blistering, eloquent, whining rant to his cubicle mate on incivility and stupidity. We are in wish-fulfillment territory, Frank our champion against the vapidity of mass media culture. Then Frank is fired, and somehow this is the best joke so far. Where a film like “Idiocracy”, with similar targets but a different approach, asks little more than that we agree that everything and everyone is stupid, Frank’s outsize misanthropy is occasionally challenged and skewered. Worse is to come: his migraines are apparently the product of a brain tumor. His young daughter is beginning to bear an unnerving resemblance to the entitled teenaged star of one of the reality TV shows on his insomniac dial.

Frank steals his neighbors’ car, drives through the night, and kills the star. We’re off! He intends to kill himself too, but he is interrupted by Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr). She saw the killing, she approves, and she wants to join Frank to deliver more “justice” to the ignorant and undeserving. The two embark on a spree that allows us to celebrate grisly comeuppance for everyone from loud moviegoers to thinly disguised Fox News hosts. Joel Murray cuts the misanthropy with a squinting, grumpy wryness that plays happily against Barr’s wiseass teenager. The relationship is firmly paternalistic. Frank’s principles come in handy in ruling out less savory undertones – as he makes clear to Roxy, he includes sexualization of children among society’s crimes.

“God Bless America” lives in the differences between Frank and Roxy. The two killers are in constant discussion over the criteria for victims. Roxy errs on the side of killing pretty much everyone. Her nihilistic teenage bluster allows Frank to display his principles, and those principles in turn let her push at the logical boundary of his absolutism. They make a great pair. Their defining exchange is Roxy putting “anyone who gives high fives” on her list of the guilty; Frank quite likes high fives and is disappointed. That they are not the same means that we can’t see the film purely as a universal rant for the smugly superior. Then we are free to simply tag along and enjoy the what-the-hell fun of the spree against their common enemies.

The man-and-girl team naturally recalls “Super”, itself a 2010 TIFF Midnight Madness pick. In that film Rainn Wilson was driven to fantastic violence, with Ellen Page his young sidekick. But where Super’s protagonist was driven to insane heights by personal vengeance, here Frank is motivated by a much broader, matter-of-fact hate, and at no point is he allowed wild-eyed craziness. This helps: Frank can stand in for us, and the shocking violence can be our shocking violence, which I think makes it a bit less shocking. Of course it also helps that “God Bless America” has excellent jokes.

Links: IMDb

Moneyball (2011)

Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” was published in 2003. For years afterwards Joe Morgan, ESPN’s leading baseball color commentator, repeatedly insisted that the book had been written by Billy Beane. This is absolutely nonsensical. But now that “Moneyball” has made it to the big screen, Morgan’s nonsense be a tiny bit less ridiculous: this is most definitely now the Billy Beane story. Can a person be a success if he is not the best?

The book painted a detailed picture of the lineage of the then state-of-the-art in the analysis of baseball players through the lens of the 2002 Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). Bennett Miller’s movie condenses the story of the gradual revolution in analysis into an adapted story of that one season, using it as the backdrop to its relaxed portrait of a man driven by hatred of losing. To get away with this, the film stereotypes the peripheral baseball figures around Beane in a way that the book was careful not to, but I had no problem there. Who needs fidelity from a baseball movie, let alone one about player valuation? This goes also for the liberties taken in illustrating the 2002 A’s without so much as mentioning their MVP shortstop or three elite starting pitchers. So be it.

Instead we are left with the character of Beane, composed entirely of his relationships to baseball and his young daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). We first see him sitting alone in stands of the dark Oakland Coliseum as his team, on the other side of the country in Yankee stadium, loses in the first round of the 2001 playoffs. He cannot even stand to listen to the radio he is holding, flicking it on and off. He is drained by defeat, but he is not there to witness it. It is the endpoint of success or failure that affects him, not the way it is earned. “We lost”, he says repeatedly, refusing any consolation.

His challenge then is to rebuild the team after this disappointment – and the loss of several key players to other teams and the big-money contracts he and his A’s cannot afford. Pitt plays Beane almost manically, in his drive to win at one moment cool and focused and the next shooting from the hip. He senses that he cannot replace his lost stars in any straightforward sense of the word. He notices and then poaches a young analyst, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), from a rival team’s administration, elevating the data-cruncher to be his right-hand man. Together they forge a plan to punch above their weight, to find value in the darkest corners that richer teams can afford to overlook. Brand has little obvious motivation other than his correct conviction that the conventional wisdom is wrong; Beane’s motivation is enough for two men.

Pitt’s relationship with Jonah Hill occasionally recalls that with Ed Norton from “Fight Club”, as Beane mentors Brand by challenging and wrong-footing him. But Brand talks back. Through their discussions we see that Beane is credulous and does not struggle against what, to the old-school baseball lifers that compose his staff, is sacrilege. Eventually he even descends to explain himself to his players, teaching his misfits how they can achieve the success that Brand has convinced him they can attain. Still he will not watch the games, but neither is he sitting alone in an empty stadium. He is now intervening in fate.

Beane’s tragedy throughout is that he cannot conceive of exceeding expectations as success. It’s not enough for his team to do better than they “should”, given their resources. The point is driven home by interspersed scenes of the young Beane, a supposed sure-fire baseball star, not the underdog but the favorite. He flames out, fails, and there is no space for him between this failure and that. Later, Brand tries to demonstrate to Beane that progress, and beating the odds, is not failure, at worst a different kind of success; Beane seems to concede in principle without quite agreeing.

It is another story entirely with his daughter. Baseball consumes the vast bulk of the screen time, but in a sense Beane’s most important relationship in the film is with his Casey. He takes her to buy a guitar. She plays well and he asks her to sing too, but she is reluctant – she’s not very good, she claims. But now it doesn’t matter to him. He convinces her to sing, and she is good, better than we could expect, and Beane is speechless and proud. Suddenly the question of who is the best singer doesn’t matter; Casey is good, and Beane cares about Casey.

Pitt’s performance is too subtle and the film as a whole too patient for melodrama or triteness. Yet by the coda when Beane is invited to ascend to the throne as general manager to the Red Sox, to suddenly have a buffer of the resources as well as the drive to win, it seems that more than just being close to his family or a perverse desire to be the underdog drives him to decline. Perhaps Beane, without ever quite admitting it, is now willing to admit that different kind of success.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic

Drive (2011)

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is economical of action when we see him at work. I found it easier to believe in him as an expert driver than if he had chattered and had his head on a swivel as in more whizz-bang car chases. Outside of the car he is equally reserved, using few words and leaving long pauses before speaking or acting. Perhaps this is why his decisions also seem so assured?

The Driver is introduced in a getaway job that immediately places the film’s action as more Michael Mann than Michael Bay, and establishes the Driver as a craftsman. He is a wheelman, stunt driver, and mechanic, all in association with his mentor-like boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). We see him perform a driving stunt on a movie set, and the Driver seems invincible behind the wheel. The distinction between legal and illegal is fuzzy; work is work. The same seems true for Bernie (Albert Brooks), who claims a former career as movie producer and now a middling criminal boss. Shannon talks him into bankrolling a stock car venture for the Driver.

The scheme will not see fruition. The Driver meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and bonds with her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison; she and the Driver form a friendship that is suggestive but decorous. The Driver is honorable and restrained.

Upheaval arrives when Standard is released, but thankfully not because Standard is angered by the interloper. His jealousy is allowed to flicker, but he too is allowed to be honorable and accepting. This becomes crucial. Standard is beaten and his family threatened; if he does not work to steal money to repay arbitrary prison  protection fees, Irene and Benecio will be targeted. The Driver, with no explicit prompting, negotiates the job with himself as wheelman in exchange for Standard’s debt to be considered repaid. In this way the mutual respect of the two men, through Irene, is the pivot on which the tragedy turns, as the “good” and simple heist goes wrong, and the consequences unfold.

But through it all the Driver consistently makes sensible choices (notwithstanding some of the vicious violence attached). We are told almost nothing about him in the film, yet he is permitted some open emotion that jars with the “anonymous stranger”. What is going through his head? Early on the long, watchful pauses seem detached, maybe affected cool. As the Driver becomes more and more helpless to inevitability and the pauses are stoic and damp-eyed I wondered if maybe he was uncertain of himself all along. He is presented as a classic loner but ultimately seems lonely.

“Drive” reminded me a bit of another lonely film in “Lost in Translation”. Some of the visuals parallel, especially the soft focus city-at-night scenes and the music was used in a way that felt similar. The tone of Irene’s relationship with the Driver mirrors that movie too: it is brief, profound and restrained, although of course the characters are very different. Carey Mulligan seems not to take a deep breath throughout, Irene never totally relaxed and eventually drained by grief.

The Driver remains an expert to the end, but cannot end reassured. His best abilities and best-available decisions cannot salvage much from the inevitable path of events. Gosling shows this vulnerability and frustration with understatement, which is more than enough after the extreme reservation of the first half. The exception to this understatement is followed by the most poignant moment in “Drive”. The Driver’s most passionate outburst, of desire and violence, comes in an elevator with Irene and a man presumably sent to hurt them. Afterwards, Irene, grieving and freshly shocked, backs away and says nothing as the elevator door closes on the Driver. His reservation was briefly dropped, but his reward is to be left immediately speechless and alone. Later, after the story here is over, I wondered if he would have been changed by what happened, if the next person to meet him would see something that we didn’t.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic

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