25 February 2013

Melancholia (2011)

Was I the only one who saw this film and thought that, not only is the entire debacle a hallucination brought on by the condition after which the film is named, but additionally, the hallucinatory and delusional state had caused Justine (Kirsten Dunst in the first role I have liked her in since she got to make out with Brad Pitt in Interview With The Vampire!) to kill off many members of her own family?? How could everyone else have missed this? Must have been so caught up in the film's visual beauty that they missed the dismal and depressing fact that the film is at base a recounting of a melancholic incident in the life of a bi-polar woman. Even if we put aside the idea of Justine having killed off many of her own family members, as a hallucination, the film holds up pretty well when one considers Justine is the first to see the approaching planet that will end all life on earth.

There is little of plot to recount: its the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels good about anything! The film opens with a couple on their wedding day limousine, unable to navigate the twisty road from ceremony to reception - in a visual metaphor one finds it impossible to miss! Consequently, they leave the limo and proceed on foot to a lavish reception where the family drama unleashed on unsuspecting guests strikes the bride so forcefully that she falls into the depressive phase of her frequent manic to depressive swings. Her response to the stresses of a toxic mother is understandable for a bi-polar sufferer, she is self-destructive. She has sex outside on the golf course, with her dress still on, with some lackey brought to the wedding by her boss. And I suppose this indiscretion is supposed to make clear or acceptable why her family respond to her with such hostility??

For example, as a Lars Von Trier film, the other people's responses are freakishly enacted, but the most bizarre is her new spouse (played with a shocking degree of muted banality by Alexander Skarsgarde, best known as the passionate fire/ice vampire on True Blood). This paragon of determination and commitment, frustrated that Justine will not have sex with him immediately after the reception and passive-aggressively angry that she does not display enough excitement over his purchase of apple orchards to make her happy, packs up his things and Leaves Her!! Yes, while still in wedding attire, he leaves her - so, 'until death do us part' really meant, 'until I get mildly annoyed by your long-battled bout with mental illness.'

His departure, her father's refusal to recognize and attempt to alleviate the stress she feels when she begs him to stay and speak with her, and being fired from her job precipitate an ambiguous amount of time before we meet up with Justine again, and this is why the film's hallucinatory effect feels most keen. Not only is Justine the first to see the planet's appearance in the sky - how meaningful that a wedding day is connected to the end of all life by a giant blue planet! - but the planet's approach follows her descent/depression.

If depression feels as if doom and disaster lie just around every corner and nothing is going to turn out well, then what better way to show that then by having a planet headed straight for the earth. Suddenly, Justine perks up! With the approach of the apocalypse she is revived and alert, whereas when we see her again post wedding, she has to be helped to stand up as her sister attempts to have her take a bath. It is either the most cynical or the most perverse wish-fulfillment that this film celebrates - at least with lovely visuals - the realization of the depressive mindset that the end is nigh.

Thus, as a hallucination it works very well. If the train-wreck wedding took place, then it would make sense that Justine's mind would create a way out of the pain through the destruction of everyone. After the wedding she doesn't stew in her apartment and then show up at her sister's house. In reality, she lapses into an irretrievable depression that appears to her like the end of the world.

Ultimately I found it hard to find the spark in this film that had everyone so excited about it when it came out. If you either mute the film after the first beautiful ten minutes or so, or continue playing music over the muted film, then perhaps I see why people were so pleased. Otherwise, it feels far too dark a vision, too stark an end for either the clinically depressed or bi-polar person. I don't necessarily need redemption and hollywood endings, but I also do not need total annihilation.

14 February 2013

Nurse Betty (2000)

The plot reads like any of a possible many cheesy and hackneyed neo-noir flicks: two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), one on his final job, follow the sole witness and wife (Renee Zellweger) of the man (Aaron Eckhart as a character you can hate completely) they just killed over drug deal gone bad. The wife flees cross country from Kansas to California with the drugs/drug money in the trunk of her car, and creates a new life for herself. However, this summary fails to consider the wondrous, unusual, and utterly candid film that Neil LaBute has made. Wildly beyond any attempts to categorize it, the film flaunts the tenets of all the genres in which it dips: crime drama, film noir, buddy comedy, road flick, etc... and in the course of its execution, it creates a stirring and deeply compelling group of characters.

And that is perhaps the best description of this film, a character study. The two hit men are played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as a counter to the bumbling antics of previous cinematic buddy duos. As the hit man in training, Rock is uncouth and acts as the uncut, glassy-rock looking lump to Freeman's polished, gleaming engagement ring. His comedic schtick should be odd or at least off putting, but instead balanced with the malice of their actions, it acts as demonstration of one of LaBute's main fascinations: how evil and morally corrupt motivations can hide in even the most beguiling and banal seeming packages. Not to say that Rock's performance is banal, instead it crackles and clicks with Freeman's in marvelous fashion. LaBute represented the same slant of human nature in the criminally underrated, and unfairly/viciously maligned The Shape of Things (2003).

This banal quality of evil is carried over into Freeman's performance, and is beautifully contrasted with Zellweger's. And as Ebert highlights so wonderfully in his review, it is the complementary trajectory of Freeman and Zellweger's characters that makes the film work so well. Zellweger's Betty is launched involuntarily into fantasy by violence, Freeman's hitman is launched into fantasy voluntarily by his life of violence. But there is more to what the film is doing than just the two of them joined in dreamy fantasy. Freeman's aging, evil, but compellingly disassociated hit man is believable paired with Rock's comedic impatience, but it feels more interesting still when considered as contrast to Betty.

As a character study this film is concerned with more than fantasy. It is playing with our ideas about evil and people's responses to evil when it is thrown into the lives of those who do not regularly encounter it. What happens when one confronts the limits of one's own ability to tolerate horror? What does fantasy do for those confronting the unimaginable? There are all sorts of ideas in our social and legal world about "appropriate" responses to certain situations, and psychology will tell you what people should do given a particular stimuli. However, what LaBute does so well in this film is show how the unpredictability of existence is actually more the norm than what legal and psychological parlance tells us. What do we hear more about, the bizarre "you could not make this up" type of crimes, or the horrific crimes that unfold exactly as we are told by Law & Order they should?

And it is this contrast, between fantasy and violence, between death and the sublime, as filtered through the magnificent, nuanced performances of the characters. It is these shifting, precarious roles that make this the sort of film that, every time I see it, I find myself again surprised by how quickly and tightly it pulls me in, while simultaneously repelling me from the violence of the two hit men and the resort to madness taken by our heroine. If given the time and consideration, this is the type of film to teach you more about yourself than you realize based on your responses to what you see the character's seeing, and what you sense the characters feeling.

Battleship (2012)

As a Black woman in America, overeducated in the ways that visual culture functions and malfunctions in its representation of folks at the margins of social constructivist power, I often find myself at odds with movies and TV that are hostile to me and full of stereotypes. In an extra cruel twist of fate, I am also the atypical "chick" in that I love me some college football (and the Steelers, for reasons of marriage), college basketball (and the Knicks/Celtics for reasons of Anthony and Rondo respectively), and action movies full of explosions and fights and strong staple characters of American cinema. I am probably the only woman who was ecstatic that her husband bought her the boxed set of Bruce Willis' Die Hard films - yippy kay yay!

All this means that I love my summer-blow 'em up-blockbusters as much as Cary Fukunaga's stunning update to Jane Eyre (2011) and the equally challenging and beautiful work of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991). However, my Summer Blockbusters do not always love me, and the Transformers flicks are a key example. This is not a review of those films, but in summary, whenever I happen upon Michael Bay's frenzied creepy robots, I am left feeling not just alienated but assaulted. See, when I see a movie, you don't always have to absolutely be speaking to a diverse audience and trying to make sure I'm excited to see it, but please don't slap me around while I'm paying you approximately $16-$20 and have to sit in seats with gum on the bottom and sticky soda on the armrests!!

As brief summary, the first and especially the second Transformers films not only take a huge dump on people of other races and ethnicities - see character's talking about John Tuturo's "jew 'fro," the whiny, cowardly hispanic roommate, and comments made by Dargis at the NYTimes - they also hate women. Women get the shaft via the main character's mom portrayed as whiny, bothersome, and silly/stupid in disturbing ways, and Megan Fox's exposed skin and comments to the press about Bay's objectification of her body. And none of this mentions the fact that Bay introduces two robot/car characters in the second film that have voices with obvious African American cadence and tone, they are bumbling fools, like a modern day minstrel show, and at one particularly low point for the entire history of cinema, they admit that they cannot help the humans with some technology related to their home-world because They Cannot Read! This is not to suggest that overt pandering is an expected or desired guiding impulse, but at least an effort Not to make a movie with hundreds of entries listed at TVTropes.org is definitely welcome.

I include this lengthy introduction and comment because of my very low expectations going into seeing Battleship (2012), and because of so many reviewers insistance on comparing the two films and two directors in a way I find both unfair and without reflection on the ways in which they differ. Even the review over at Moira, where I often refer to check out his thoughts on Sci-Fi flicks, gets it wrong because, unlike Transformers 2 (2009), Berg's film did not leave me feeling dirty and pissed off about hours in my life I will never have back again. This is because Peter Berg's Battleship, rather than being a shoddy imitation of Transformers or Transformers on water, is instead what Transformers should have been had Michael Bay not been the dreadful filmmaker that Trey Stone and Matt Parker take so much delight in skewering! Berg's film makes an effort to be inclusive and appealing to a broad range of people without dulling the action and cheesy fun.

The film bears little resemblance to the board game, and instead features your standard, obligatory, and typical summer movie characters and plot of aliens fighting a rag tag group of underdog humans who somehow triumph over their superior technological and strength capacities to save planet Earth. Set in Hawaii, the beautiful location no doubt at least offers many viewers a surrogate-vacation, albeit one full of angry aliens and people dying after being run over by giant sentient bocce balls. There are the standard scenes of guy/girl-meet-cute, alien/human-meet-scary, the death of characters to give other characters perspective, comic relief characters, and people running around stating what they are doing and projecting their ideas onto the audience so we know what we are supposed to think and feel at all times.

I haven't included a true plot summary because it's not really necessary. I am Not arguing that Battleship is a fabulous film or even a staple of anyone's DVD collection. It is a goofy, fun movie full of plot holes, missing motivations, and stupid actions. (For example, why isn't the first action taken by those left inside the impenetrable bubble to destroy the thing creating the bubble?!!! Aim Only for the giant bubble creating platforms people!!) However, Battleship presents us with differences from Bay's dreck that are worth noting. As noted by Ebert, in one of the more balanced reviews of the film, the co-captain of humanity's salvation is Japanese due to plot contrivance and probable market-research about capturing Asian markets. But this casting of one of Thor's right hand men also allows for a dissolution of lingering nasty feelings about Pearl Harbor associated with the Japanese attack. Instead of fighting each other, here Japan and America redirect the hostilities into fighting the aliens.

Additionally, our hero Lt. Hooper's main ally in charging out to fight the aliens is none other than petty officer Raikes, played by Rihanna. The government may have only recently decided to allow women to fight in combat positions, but in Berg's world, no one is better able to assist our main man than Barbadian pop songstress (and bum--magnet) Rihanna. She is on the gun in the boat with Hooper sent out to first meet the alien vessel, and seems to be the only one other than his brother able to rag on Hooper while on duty. When a soldier is injured, Hooper sends two men to take him to the infirmary, and keeps Raikes with him to continue searching the ship for alien invaders. Whether or not her prominence and casting was a callous choice aimed at pulling in young viewers who are already into her music, the choice of placing a Black woman so prominently in battling the alien forces warmed the cockles of my heart. As did the overall multi-colored array of characters on the ship including native Hawaiians.

Now, Raikes is not perfect. Occupying a pseudo-butch role that admittedly leaves no room for understanding her 1) as often the sole woman amongst men on a U.S. navel vessel and 2) apparently the only woman good enough to join the men in the U.S. versus Japan soccer match that is part of the naval camp meeting activities, the character of Raikes nonetheless fires the key shot to wipe out the aliens before they can 'phone home.' And more than once Raikes channels Uhuru in her ability to operate the ships controls when the men cannot - for the geeky viewers among us. More should be said of Rihanna's performance, existing as it does in an often asexual and angry-black-woman zone I am inclined to be frustrated with the limits of, and I might say more in another post, but for now let us say that the filmmakers could have chosen to put someone like Hooper's love interest Sam in this role and instead they chose someone completely different than what Bay's choice would have been and that makes me happy!

Berg also differs from Bay when it comes to said love interest. Played by Sports Illustrated model Brooklyn Decker, this role does not offer her much too do, and yet what it does offer her does not require she be a virtually naked, whiny niny waiting to be saved or run next to the hero as arm candy. Unlike in Bay's claptrap, Decker's Sam is not filmed with her back arched and butt cheeks pushed toward the camera in titillating sex-object fashion. Sam first appears in a belly barring shirt, but hey, this is Hawaii after all and everyone is sweating and hot. Later, working with a Wounded Warrior as his physical therapist, she is clothed, professional, and obviously aware of being pretty but that is secondary to being active in helping the veteran get stronger while eluding/foiling alien aims. She does not whine about needing to be saved, and does not dither more than a second or two when on the line briefly with fiancee Hooper about blowing up an antenna. She does not even mention the personal and romantic connection between the two when discussing his assistance with the veteran and the scientist, and when on the phone with him it is he who calls her "baby" before they are disconnected. Moreover, and most exciting, is a key scene towards the end where, when they need a good driver to take out the alien antenna, it is Sam who is enlisted to drive the jeep over deep ruts and flying off inclines. This felt especially keen for me, a freakin' phenomenal driver who was razzed by a man last week about the fact that a man should be driving me around. Sigh.

Finally, unlike the Bay films that create worlds without much nuance and without any ideas other than his own allegedly 16year old boy's perspective, this film actively includes veterans (although in some scenes there were actors mixed in as well) and Wounded Warriors. As a film involving the navy, one might expect the nod to the old guard - even Under Siege (1996), amongst the topless woman and witty one-liners, snuck in a third act nod that Berg repeats in Battleship. However, the difference here is one of ability. The key man of the group whose job is to delay the transmission of the alien's request for help from home, is real life Iraq war vet Colonel Gregory D. Gadson who lost his legs below the knee. In the film, he navigates steep hills and battles with  aliens in Iron Man suits, all while standing on/wearing prosthetic legs! Ragging on Sam that his grandmother or his dog could climb a hill they're ascending - his dog happens to be dead - Colonel Gadson brings a welcome gravity and depth to a role that could have been a throwaway. Combined with an early montage of veterans with prosthetic limbs, Berg has gone out of his way to highlight the payments made in flesh and blood by real life vets while celebrating the fictional glory of Navy-men battling aliens.

This review may perhaps be the most computer "ink" spilled in analyzing a film that most critics and viewers despised, but it is necessary. Transformers 1, 2... movies have done a world of harm to many of the people Bay would like to entice to see them (even as Transformers' creators give us a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black by firing Megan Fox over the least damaging and most insipid of her statements about the film making process). And people they want to see their movies include those like me who adore all forms of film, will pay for the big screen and communally charged environment that a theatre creates, and if I enjoy it, I will encourage others to go see a movie. Peter Berg was clearly inspired by Hasbro's Transformers films, but whether it was working on Friday Night Lights or appearing in The Last Seduction (1994) or one of the other projects he has worked on in between, with Battleship, Berg as done something better and different than Bay.

I did not pay to see Battleship in theaters, but I did pay to see both Transformers 1 & 2. I even stayed all the way through the second film - although a friend said she, her husband, and her 10 year old nephew left after about an hour because of how deeply offensive it was. But if I could go back in time, I would gladly pay the cost of both of those films to see Battleship instead.