Thank You, Ms. Dargis

Here is a link to a fascinating analysis of the first scenes of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” by NYTimes film critic, Manohla Dargis. In quite an impressive feat of research and close-reading, Ms. Dargis manages to uncover allusions ranging from Hamlet to the riderless horse in John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Thank you, Ms. Dargis, for reminding us that insightful and imaginative film writing still thrives.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/movies/awardsseason/manohla-dargis-looks-at-the-overture-to-melancholia.html?ref=movies

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‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’

You’ll never eat a chestnut or listen to the cacophony of a jackhammer the same way after watching “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the intense and unnerving new film from Lynne Ramsey (Ratcatcher,” “Movern Callar”). “Kevin,” which won Best Film at BFI’s London Film Festival, chronicles the events leading up to, during and after a horrific school shooting of which fifteen-year-old Kevin (Ezra Miller) is responsible. In a narrative twist, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is not told through the point of view of Kevin, a homicidal sociopath, but is rather an exploration into the psyche of Kevin’s mother Eva, played by Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton,” “I Am Love”).

The film, which was adapted from Lionel Shriver’s eponymous novel, undertakes the evolution of the excruciating guilt that Eva feels for her son’s heinous actions. Kevin is her first child, and Ramsey gives us flashbacks of Eva when she is pregnant with Kevin, and deeply depressed.  To emphasize Eva’s formerly free-spirited, pre-Kevin existence, Ramsey also begins the film with another flashback of Eva in a state of ecstasy during Spain’s La Tomatina, crowd-surfing atop a mob of tomato-stained flesh. In a clever transition from a blissful, Kevin-less past to a nightmarish present, the following scene finds Eva in her dilapidated house, her skin misted red not from tomato gore but from the scarlet paint that she laboriously attempts to scrub from her vandalized house. Eva also ritualistically eats scrambled eggs (and in one self-flagellating scene, she crunches on pieces of broken egg-shells). It is as if Eva is attempting to annihilate her birth to Kevin through some twisted, symbolic form of cannibalism that would fit nicely into Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”

Ramsey is no stranger to harrowing themes and stories, especially true in her debut feature, “Ratcatcher.” But in spite of its grisliness, “Ratcatcher” was a coming-of-age story as well as a unique period piece; a candid, unflinching glimpse into an obscure time and place—the garbage strike in 1970s Glasgow. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” does not have the aesthetic or narrative grandeur of her first film; at times, especially the scenes depicting Kevin’s early childhood menace, the film is downright depressing. It is the fearless performance of Tilda Swinton that saves “Kevin” from drowning in its own morbidity. Ms. Swinton can contort her alabaster, porcelain features into a grotesque mask of grief like no other actor I’ve seen (in ‘I Am Love,” her transformation from maternal warmth to a mother paralyzed by grief and guilt is almost supernaturally chilling). And despite the grim tenor of “Kevin,” Ramsey does allow Swinton to have some darkly humorous moments, such as her matter-of-fact, straight-faced response to religious solicitors who knock on her door: “I’m going straight to hell.” Another wickedly droll scene is when Eva takes the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) out for miniature golf and dinner. Eva counters Kevin’s nonchalance and smugness with her own shrewd awareness that their efforts towards a mother/son relationship are merely a role-playing farce.

Aside from Swinton, the redeeming element of “Kevin” is the air of uncertainty surrounding any possible explanations for Kevin’s heinous actions. Ramsey takes the audience so deep inside Eva’s fraught head and heart that we don’t know whether Kevin’s sociopathic behavior, especially as a young child, is tangible or exaggerated by Eva as a symptom of post-partum depression. Because of this ambiguity, Kevin and Eva form a perverted symbiotic relationship in which both are victims of each other’s behavior; Kevin of his mother’s coldness and at times, physical abuse, and Eva of her son’s inscrutable malice.  The question after any unspeakable act of violence is always “Why?” Eva does not ask her son that question until the film’s coda, and perhaps it is because she is afraid that his answer will expose her own inherent responsibility for his actions. It is also a question that is must be posed about this film: Why make a film on such a problematic subject and choose to portray an atrocious act of mass murder other than to exploit shock and provoke? Regrettably, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” fails to do little more than just that.


‘Melancholia’

“Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s intelligent, melodramatic, achingly beautiful and wickedly funny new film. It tells the story of Justine (a transcendent Kirsten Dunst), a severe depressive, and her doting and practical sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine’s depression takes the corporeal shape of a planet called Melancholia, which is on a steady collision course with Earth. In the film’s stunning prologue, Mr. von Trier tactfully relieves the audience of any suspense concerning Earth’s fate, allowing the tone to shift from an end-of-the-world thriller to a character and relationship study. “Melancholia” uses the premise of an apocalypse to expose the frays in familial bonds—specifically, the intricate dynamic between two sisters. Justine and Claire’s bond is both affectionate and cruel, supportive and insensitive.

The film is divided into two parts named after each of the sisters.  Although part one is named after Justine, the “melancholic” sister, this section of the film proves to be the most humorously absurd. Mr. von Trier is—gasp—having a bit of fun as we follow Justine through the grand charade of her wedding celebration. He has reined in all of his pals from films past to play members of the wedding party, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine’s backbiting parents, and Udo Kier the prim and fretful wedding planner. And despite Justine’s deep sadness during what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, Ms. Dunst is luminous. Instead of portraying Justine as incessantly bleak, Dunst’s performance during this half the film is almost sphinxlike in its spontaneity. She does not skulk around in her wedding dress (although she does, at one point, gracefully urinate in it beneath the moonlight), but rather ventures in and out of the festivities like an elusive specter. And because von Trier has revealed the fate of these characters in the first ten minutes, the audience can empathize with Justine as she views her wedding with a growing sense of dread and indifference.

Part two is named for Claire, Justine’s pragmatic but anxious older sister. Although Claire grows weary and frustrated with Justine’s erratic behavior, she understands her sister’s illness and knows how to take care of her. Claire’s relationship with Justine becomes increasingly complicated in the film’s second half, as she grapples with her own growing anxiety over the path of Melancholia while simultaneously caring for Justine, who has become incapacitated by her depression. In contrast to the darkly sumptuous aesthetic of part one, with an alluring Justine  wreaking havoc in a wedding dress, part two is more subdued and more painful to watch. Justine has lost her enigmatic glow, and von Trier, who has long suffered from depression himself, depicts her descent with alarming candor. It has been suggested that Mr. von Trier uses female characters in his films to represent his own struggles with depression. If  “Antichrist” was considered by many to be too vicious and misogynistic, his rendering of Justine’s anguish in “Melancholia” is as upsetting as it is compassionate.

But part two is named “Claire” for a reason. As Melancholia becomes more of a threat, (the planet and the illness) Claire becomes fraught with worry that the end is near, and the sisters’ reactions to the planet begin to diverge.  Justine begins to emerge from her depression and becomes more lucid, but is callous towards Claire’s distress. Justine feels a kinship with Melancholia; she embraces the planet as an actual representation and justification for her chronic illness. Yet, just as Claire strove to comfort Justine during her lowest points, Justine’s coldness turns into an intense stoicism, and eventually, into her own display of compassion, especially towards Claire’s son, Leo.

In “Melancholia,” the end of the world is not rendered with mass hysteria or with an overblown sequence of natural disasters, but rather with understated beauty. Bugs creep up from the soil, hail the color of pure white flower buds falls from the sky, all as Melancholia—massively exquisite in itself—looms closer and closer overhead. Despite its morbid theme, bone-rattling soundtrack straight from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and the fact that it’s a Lars von Trier film, the tone of “Melancholia” is almost soothing. Mr. von Trier proposes that the end of the world, like his film, may just be a thing of beauty.


‘Take Shelter’

Haunting, unsettling, terrifying, anxiety-inducing—you name the adjective and it’s been used to describe Jeff Nichols modern day apocalyptical masterpiece, “Take Shelter.” So what more is there to say? “Take Shelter” is indeed all of the above, and the brilliance of the film is that it is so understated that you don’t realize or understand its impact until it has had time to settle under your skin and into your psyche.

It is always a challenge to watch a movie in which the expectations have already been set sky high. Oftentimes, when experiencing any art form that has garnered a wealth of critical praise, I find that I am forcing myself to feel certain emotions and be moved in some meaningful way by the art. The feeling is not genuine, but rather what I think I am expected to feel. This does not happen often, but it is extremely disappointing when it does. And to be honest, I was forcing myself to feel unsettled and disturbed early on in “Take Shelter,” when the images of Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) nightmares begin to unfold. I had read so many articles describing the eeriness of these dreamlike events that I felt desensitized to them; the ribbon-like formations of the birds, the churning black clouds, the rust-colored rain. I was on the verge of a glorious let-down when a tall drink of water and force of nature that surpasses the portentous storm named Michael Shannon pulled me out of my disenchanted stupor.

Shannon’s restrained performance as the anguished everyman-prophet was the most distressing element of the film, more so than the impending unknown terror of his nightmares and visions. To see Shannon, who is 6’3, give such a physically and emotionally internalized performance was a spectacle in itself. During a particularly intense episode, Curtis suffers so viscerally from a nightmare in his sleep that his wife, Samantha (the omnipotent Jessica Chastain, and welcomingly so) fears he is having a stroke and dials 911. It is an agonizing scene to watch because of the vulnerability of both Curtis and Samantha, who has thus far been kept in the dark about her husband’s inner torment. Scenes such as this heighten “Take Shelter” from a doomsday thriller to a sensitively rendered domestic drama.

“Take Shelter” has garnered praise for being a painfully realistic cautionary tale for our own demise. Curtis’ troubling visions represent our own very real financial and environmental apocalypse, and the fact that Curtis is sane enough to question his own insanity makes his prophecies all the more tangible. But Mr. Richards’ nuanced and natural depiction of the family’s bond and dynamic in the midst of Curtis’ struggle gives the film its heart. There are  crucial and surprising moments in which Samantha does not shun Curtis for his possible psychosis. In one scene, when Curtis finally unleashes his turmoil in a bout of hysteria during a Lion’s Club dinner, Samantha does not walk out on him with her daughter, but, at the risk of becoming an outcast in her community, embraces him, and the three leave together in a display of unconditional love and solidarity. At risk of spoilers, I will not describe anymore such scenes, but I will say that the interaction between Curtis and Samantha, and the realm of emotions that they can convey with so few words, was, like the film itself, quietly breathtaking.


In defense of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’

I feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. After “The Last Airbender” debacle and the graceless marketing scheme for “The Happening” as his first rated-R film, M. Night needs an overhaul, and maybe some kind-hearted praise for what he’s done right in his films. There is a divisiveness evident in nearly all of his films—you either watch them with derisive condescension for figuring out the plot-twist before anyone else (well, aren’t you so smart!) or your gullible, bleeding heart is pulled over to the side of admiration and even respect. I admit that for some of his films, I fall into the latter category. There is something about Mr. Shyamalan’s unabashed earnestness and imaginative-audacity-verging-on-ridiculousness that I have always admired.  Mr. Shyamalan’s best films are mercifully free of cynicism, but still have darkly humorous undertones, such as in “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” Yes, they were both serious films about seeing dead people and hostile aliens, respectively, but they had their tongue-in-cheek moments as well. Bruce Willis’ hapless attempt at magic tricks and the sight of Mel Gibson as a preacher running around his house wielding a baseball bat whilst being forced to scream expletives are only two examples. Mr. Shyamalan puts his imagination and his emotional gut on the line, and that takes nerve, even if you think he’s a directorial hack. Yes, I am about to defend M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Well, at least one of them

I must begin with a proclamation to all of the smart-asses that may be reading this: Please get over the fact that you figured out the plot-twist before everyone else and stop to appreciate this film. There is no denying that “The Village” is well-acted, gorgeously shot and propelled by an elegant musical score. It is also thematically rich. The film scrutinizes a 19th century community’s struggle to cling to innocence, unadulterated beauty and love, and the painful sacrifices they must make to protect this prelapsarian existence. The members of the village do not venture into the surrounding woods and never have due to an intrinsic fear of creatures known as “the one’s we do not speak of.” There exists a truce between the villagers and these unspeakable creatures, and the townsfolk take ritualistic precautions to hinder their threat; the color red is forbidden, as it attracts them, and sacrifices of meat are given. When Noah Percy, (Adrian Brody) a mentally disabled villager, ventures into the forbidden woods, the creatures begin to infiltrate the village. Their presence is at first unseen; they stealthily enter the village and leave disturbing omens, such as skinned animals. Eventually, they do make quite a terrifying appearance. But even more terrifying than the creatures themselves is the sense of claustrophobia that Mr. Shyamalan creates through the omniscient threat of the surrounding woods.  Even the scenes in broad daylight of the villagers’ communal outdoor meals are fraught with tension and disquiet.

Above all, there is a strong cautionary tale inherent in the “The Village,” and here we have our first plot-twist: as it turns out, the real threat is not a supernatural monstrosity, but a human one. The woodland creatures are a “farce” invented by the founding villagers so that future generations will not venture into the corrupt, impure and violent towns.  The village was established because each founding member has suffered from some heinous human act of violence. Their decision to seclude themselves from the darker side of humanity can be perceived as cowardly, but also admirably ambitious and idealistic. But the true horror of the film is that there is no escape from senseless violence and death. This tragic truth is realized when two of the film’s most innocent characters, Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) become unwitting perpetrators of their own love crimes.

Noah Percy’s character exposes the first blemishes of this supposedly untarnished village, and it is not because he is an outcast or mistreated by the townsfolk because of his mental illness. Noah symbolizes the consequences of being encased by innocence one’s entire life and not being capable of knowing or understanding how to cope with the darks side when it begins to surface. When it becomes known to the villagers that Ivy and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) are in love and are to be married, Noah feels betrayed by Ivy, his best friend, and comes to embody the animalistic, brute anguish of uncontrollable jealousy and repressed sexual desire. He brutally stabs Lucius and leaves him critically wounded, and Ivy demands to go to the towns for medicine. Ivy, who has been blind since birth, learns that the creatures are a fabrication from her father, Edward Walker (William Hurt), who is also the founder of the village. In this way, Ivy alone can venture into the woods without fear or deception.

When Ivy falls into a vast muddy ditch, the “safe” amber colors of her robe become soiled, and even though she knows the creatures are not real, she frantically attempts to wipe away the mud. We now arrive at our second plot-twist, which is actually a plot-twist within a plot-twist—a Russian nesting doll behemoth of a plot-twist: the unspeakable creatures are real! Ivy knows she is being hunted by an “unspeakable” when she can hear it mimicking her movements, which they are rumored to do before they attack. The creature then appears behind her from afar, menacingly still and quiet, cloaked in red, its features indiscernibly black and hollow within a red robe. When Ivy out-wits the creature and leads it straight into the ditch she had fallen into moments before, our plot-twist nesting doll opens its outer shell, and it is revealed that the creature is actually Noah, who has found a hidden costume underneath the floorboards of the room in which he had been sequestered after his crime.

Instead of feeling relief that the creatures are in fact still a farce, the revelation that Noah was masquerading as the creature and stalking Ivy in the woods is even more disturbing for the sexual violence that it implies. If you think I’m reaching too far by suggesting that Noah had intentions of raping Ivy, I’d like to invite you into the realm of yonic imagery. Yonic imagery is basically the feminine version of phallic imagery.  Caves, ditches and small oval openings of any sort are the most common forms of yonic imagery. Yes, Mr. Shyamalan has Ivy fall into a muddy ditch for some cheap suspense, but more tellingly, to augment the sexual confrontation that is about to unfold between Ivy and Noah in the woods.  When Ivy leads Noah straight into this ditch where he falls to his death, it would not be a stretch to say that Mr. Shyamalan is making his own twisted version of a feminist statement.

In stark opposition to this violent and sexual turmoil is the presence of delicate, chaste and restrained love.  I watch “The Village” annually around this time of year, and what stirs me every time are the nuanced, intimate and restrained moments that are laced throughout the film. “The Village” certainly has its sensational-verging-on-ridiculous moments, but it also has moments of unassuming solemnity. In one of the film’s most tender scenes, Ivy finds Lucius sitting silently on her front porch at dusk. Even as a young boy, Lucius was drawn to Ivy by a primal instinct to act as her protector, even though, as the film will make clear, she needs none. Just as their heads come together for their first kiss, the camera looks modestly away, instead focusing on an empty rocking chair bathed in mist and twilight.  When Ivy’s older sister decides to marry a man she presumable does not love, there is a brief but telling scene during her wedding in which Ivy embraces her sister. Ivy hugs her sister few beats longer than what may be considered proper, and the camera lingers for its entirety. Ivy’s face is hidden, but we realize that she is not congratulating her sister on her marriage, but thanking her. Now that her older sister is “spoken for,” Ivy is free to pursue her own love—Lucius.

This same subtle elegance is also inherent in Mr. Shyamalan’s script, which is perhaps one of the most mocked elements of “The Village” because its attempt at 19th century colloquialism feels quite forced.  For example, we have mouthfuls like “What manner of spectacle has attracted your attention so splendidly I ought to carry it my pocket to help me teach?”  But we also have quietly devastating lines. Edward Walker and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) are in love, but cannot fulfill their love because they would be scorned and punished in the confines of their close-knit village. So when Edward sends Ivy to the towns to fetch medicine to save Alice’s son, he tells her, “it is all that I can give you,” and then repeats the phrase with sacred, almost prayer-like finality. Edward wants to give and receive so much more from Alice, but this one act is literally all he is able to give.  And again, when Edward is justifying his decision break the villagers’ oath and send Ivy to the towns: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” The first time I watched “The Village,” I was so taken aback by the graceful, unpretentious poetry of that line that I wanted to kneel before it in awe myself.

Perhaps my favorite line of the “The Village” is spoken by Lucius as he reads a letter to the village elders explaining that the creatures will not harm him if he enters the forbidden woods. It is a line that I believe encapsulates the brilliant but flawed film-maker that is M. Night Shyamalan: “They will see I am pure of intention, and not afraid. The end.”  Come back, M. Night! Restore and recapture the earnest and inspired, daring and divisive film-maker you once were.

And no, I will not reveal the final plot-twist. Stop assskiiinng.


Unconventional Love Stories series: ‘Head-On’

“Head-On”: Cahit and Sibel

An arranged marriage like no other. Cahit and Sibel meet in a rehab center—he for driving drunk head-on into a cement wall, she for slitting her wrists. Sibel is desperate to marry a Turkish man to appease her traditional Turkish parents and escape from a repressive and often abusive household. Sibel sees the self-destructive, freewheeling Cahit as the perfect match.  He’s Turkish and not looking for any kind of romance or commitment, which will enable Sibel “to live and to dance and to fuck. And not just with one guy.” Sibel proposes this marital “façade” to Cahit, who, after some earnest “what the fuck are you thinking” retorts, accepts Sibel’s proposal. Hence begins one of the most tumultuous, intricate and visceral romances depicted in current cinema.

As husband and wife, Cahit is at first intrigued by –Sibel’s uninhibited sexuality—not towards him, but towards men that Sibel seduces. Cahit’s infatuation grows into jealously as he is left alone in clubs while Sibel “gets laid.” Jealousy grows into protectiveness, and eventually Cahit begins to feel desire and genuine love. Cahit and Sibel’s “marriage” is not sexual, so Cahit’s desire awakens through small intimate gestures, like when Sibel cuts his hair and cooks him a traditional Turkish dinner. We know that Cahit’s a goner when he removes Sibel’s clothes from the hangers, breathes in their scent, and sleeps with them. It is a touching moment, considering Cahit’s coarse exterior.

For me, the most unconventional aspect of Cahit and Sibel’s relationship is how they begin to express their love for each other.  Cahit, in  a love-and-alcohol induced swoon, ecstatically slams both his hands down on a bar table, breaking glasses and bloodying his hands. Oblivious to the pain, he joins the torrent of dancers, raising his arms, dripping blood, over his head and eventually climbing onto the stage in a kind of euphoric victory dance. When Sibel and Cahit are forced apart by circumstances that I refuse to spoil, Sibel cuts her hair boy-short, wears baggy, shapeless clothes and essentially embodies Cahit’s heedless lifestyle. It’s as if the only way she can survive Cahit’s absence is if she becomes him.

The best clip I could find was a mediocre trailer for the film, but at least it gives a pretty clear explanation of the plot. And the Wendy Rene song at the end, “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” gets me every time.


Unconventional Love Stories series: ‘The Piano’

“The Piano”: Ada , Baines and the piano

I first saw bits and pieces of Jane Campion’s “The Piano” when I was very young, maybe ten or eleven. I remember watching the film and wondering, “Why does this man have tattoos on his face?” and “Why is he dusting this piano with his shirt….in the nude?” I recently watched the film in its entirety, and my goodness—it still deserves every bit of praise it received when it was first released in 1993. “The Piano’s” themes, visual beauty and dark humor (yes, it’s funny!) are not in the least bit dated. But I digress. Back to the bizarre love triangle.

Ada, the mute (by choice), austere and sometimes irascible central character, is in love with her piano. Arriving to New Zealand from her native Scotland, she is no less than a mail-order bride for Stewart, a self-conscious and mundane plantation owner. Baines, Stewart’s friend and sometimes business partner, is at once intrigued and mystified by Ada. Like Ada, Baines too is an outsider; a former Scotland native, he has tribal Maori tattoo markings on his face and has adapted to the Maori culture. After Baines sees Ada literally come alive with joy and passion while playing her piano, he views the piano itself as an opportunity to get closer to Ada. Baines buys the piano and uses it as a contrivance—a pimp, if you will—to bring him and Ada together, as she reluctantly agrees to give him piano lessons at his home. To Ada’s surprise, Baines has no interest in playing himself, and only wants to watch her play. Unable to control his arousal during one of the first “lessons,”  Baines abruptly kisses Ada’s neck while she is playing and reveals to Ada that there are things  he’d “like to do” to her while she plays. Ada is shocked and disgusted, until Baines asks her if she knows how to bargain. He proposes that Ada  “earn” her piano back from him, key by (black) key; that is, each erotic favor Ada allows him is worth the amount of black keys she feels is appropriate.  Caressing her arm while she plays is worth two keys; lying together, naked, is worth ten keys—you get the idea.

I was quite surprised at this plot development because I already knew that Ada and Baines were the romantic center of the film, and I did not expect Baines to force her into something close to prostitution as a prelude to their romance. Yet, as brutish and crude as Baines’ initial “bargain” may appear, his actual erotic advances towards Ada are surprisingly cautious and even tender. During one lesson, Baines asks Ada to lift her skirt higher and higher as he lies on his back underneath the piano bench for an unimpeded view. But instead of the expected groping, his eyes follow her feet as they press on the pedals, and his fingers trace a tiny circle of exposed skin on her leg from a hole in her stocking. Ada, at first prude and aloof towards Baines, slowly becomes intrigued and obsessed with his uncouth and reckless romanticism. Yes, she wants her piano back, but she eventually wants him as well—an eccentric courtship for two very eccentric lovers.

This is a stunning scene which illustrates the unique love triangle between Ada, Baines and the piano. Ada plays the piano while Baines rests his hands on it, feeling its vibrations.  Baines then stares longingly at the  player-less piano, envisioning Ada’s undulating form as it surges and swells over the keys. Unfortunately, the clip ends just before he cleans the piano in the nude with his shirt.