Friday, December 23, 2011

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

          When I saw the emaciated, tired, dehydrated John Hawkes in last year's fantastic Winter's Bone, I knew that I'd quickly see him again in a role that truly let him inhabit what Bone only hinted at. He's got a spark in his eyes that requires attention, even sympathy. Even when the rest of him is angular and cold. He's got a mean face and a cracked voice. In Winter's Bone, all it takes is one long look for him to make his points. We can just look at his eyes and know what he's seen.

          Sean Durkin, the writer and director of the haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, must have seen what I saw in Hawkes last year. Only, instead of playing a guilty man trying to go clean, Hawkes has been cast as the charismatic leader of a small commune in the Catskill mountains.

         Sadly, Hawkes' character, Patrick, has been relegated to a supporting role.

         This is not to say that the film is ruined by this fact, but I am confident that a film about Patrick would be infinitely watchable. Hawkes gives the best performance in the movie, and one of the best performances of the year, and there is, somewhere deep down, a pain in my heart that he isn't given more screen time here to work with. But lucky for us, Elizabeth Olsen is also in the movie.

          Playing the titular Martha (sometimes Marcy May, sometimes Marlene) is Olsen, giving a totally out-of-nowhere debut performance that somehow carries the enormous weight of Durkin's unusual and disturbing screenplay, jumping between the confused and emotionally exhausted Martha and the confident leader that is Marcy May. The chronology of the film is jumbled, not unlike 21 Grams or Pulp Fiction, and sometimes the audience is unsure of which timeline Martha is in until late in the scene.

         Martha Marcy May Marlene centers around a young woman, Martha, who is accepted into a commune in the Catskills and is slowly brainwashed into believing the increasingly dangerous rules and philosophies professed by the commune's leader, a much older, enigmatic man named Patrick.

          A parallel plot runs through the film in which Martha has run away from the commune and is taking shelter at her sister's lake house in Connecticut. Martha, in these lake house scenes, is tormented by her memories of the commune, where she took the name Marcy May and witnessed countless disturbing and horrifying actions by her "family."

        The film seamlessly cuts between the two stories, linking them with visual motifs, music cues, and lines of dialogue. Before long, it becomes clear that Durkin wants to confuse us the way Martha is confused by her memories. "Do you ever wonder if something is a dream or a memory?" Martha asks her sister one night after a particularly haunting flashback. For the audience, we're thinking the same thing. These flashbacks are often followed by Martha waking up confused, scared, and looking for a way to escape.

        The cinematography is elegant and fluid, much like the camerawork of Roger Deakins or Harris Savides, and the up-close, raw handheld moments in the otherwise perfectly framed shots punctuate the film with bursts of intensity. Durkin is a visualist who seems capable of creating the imagery we've seen from filmmakers like Andrew Dominik or Ingmar Bergman--ghostly visions that stay with us long after the lights have come back on. His ability as a writer may not be quite on par with his excellent eye, but his screenwriting chops are definitely there. The film's dialogue is mostly solid, but the real pleasure in Martha is its interesting use of story structure and juxtaposition. To give away the transitions and cues he uses would be a disservice to those of you who wish to see the movie for yourselves. So I'll just say this--the transitions are magic.

      The highlights of the film are the great performances from Hawkes and Olsen, the beautiful cinematography, and the interesting structure Durkin has given the entire work. These highlights are definitely worth the price of admission.

     What the film lacks is convincing motivations for the supporting characters, and what I think is a much-needed focus on the backstory between Martha and her sister's relationship. I could also do with more Patrick. Hawkes' performance is too good for us to get as few scenes with him as we do.

I give Martha Marcy May Marlene 7.5/10 confusing movie titles.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Movie Review: Melancholia

          It's another week, and it's another review of an apocalyptic film that deals with crippling mental disorders. However, unlike last week's Take Shelter, which had fun playing with our perceptions of what's real or what's imagined, Lars Von Trier's take is decidedly less subtle.

        Melancholia is the second film in what I can only imagine to be the most devastating film trilogy of all time. Of course, Trier does not make trilogies in the literal sense, but he always works in threes stylistically and thematically. His most famous "trilogy" is the Golden Heart Trilogy, consisting of Breaking The Waves, his breakout masterpiece, The Idiots, his most unwatchable film, and Dancer in the Dark, a film that makes my tear ducts hate me. These three films are called the Golden Heart Trilogy because each movie's protagonist is mentally incapable of rational thought, yet they are overwhelmingly loving and generous to others. Each film ends with the almost Christ-like protagonist suffering a terrible fate.

       His other trilogies, while more loosely connected, also share similar themes. He has a paranoid detective trilogy from the late '80's and early '90's that shared many stylistic qualities, but his writing was not yet as unified and mature as it has become. His Dogville trilogy, which as of this review is not yet finished, shares the same protagonist through the films, but very different thematic material.

      The trilogy he is working on now, beginning with the much misinterpreted Antichrist, is built around the philosophy that there is nothing worth loving in this world. The protagonists in both Antichrist and Melancholia deal with a depression that makes them immobile. Charlotte Gainsbourg's She in Antichrist is sent into her depression because she feels responsible for her son's accidental death. Her suffering has a concrete cause, a catalyst, that the audience can relate to and sympathize with.

      Kirsten Dunst's Justine in Melancholia does not have such a good excuse. Of course, this does not make her depression any less serious, or real, but it does put the audience in a strange position. Unlike She, who is constantly reporting the reasons behind her feelings, Justine remains silent on the subject. When she does speak, she is lashing out against the people who are controlling her life. She is a character who almost defies sympathy. She is a box we can't open, just like the people in our lives who really suffer from this disease.

     The film begins with a wedding,  Justine's wedding, which has been meticulously planned by her sister, Claire, and we quickly realize that Justine is hiding a deep depression behind her smile. She constantly finds reasons to escape the house, the spotlight, her sister, her new husband. She is suffocated by the ritual of the wedding, by the people who surround her. She doesn't want any of it and she doesn't know how to tell them.

One of the first shots of the film

     Okay, I lied. The film actually begins, as Antichrist does, with a beautifully shot, slow-motion prologue. In the opening shot, Justine has electricity shooting from her fingers and Claire is running across a golf course, sinking into the grass, holding her son. A giant planet is looming over Earth, twenty times its size, sucking the atmosphere into its oceans. And then Melancholia, the titular planet, smashes into Earth, exploding it.

    We get all of this before a single line of dialogue is spoken. Just a few extraordinarily staged shots (most of which can be spotted in the trailer) and one terrifying vision of the end of the world.

    And then the wedding starts. Tens of characters are introduced, not unlike the very best Robert Altman films of the early seventies, and something weird happens. For the first time in a Lars Von Trier film, I had a lot of fun. There is humor and warmth to the first half of this film. Apart from, you know, the destruction of the planet. John Hurt plays a lovable grandfather, Keifer Sutherland plays an arrogant, rich scientist who is trying to please his unpleasable sister, Udo Kier plays a tragically underutilized wedding planner, Stellan Skarsgaard plays a hilariously forthright advertising agent, and the list goes on. The characters are all written quite well, and the scenes often play like the very best sections of Nashville.

     It's a little stunning how warm and funny the first half of the film really is, considering how dark and nihilistic the films final half becomes. This tonal shift is placed almost completely on Dunst's performance, which is, I have to say, remarkable. I have never really seen true talent in Dunst before. She's passable, but I've mostly written her off as beautiful and one-note. But here, she is really doing something special. She is given the almost impossible task of carrying the ridiculous ambition of Von Trier's script, which includes tens of characters, an apocalyptic, science-fiction plot, and wild tone shifts between light-hearted comedy and deeply moving chamber drama.

      I'm not sure how Trier knew she could do it, but she can. And not only is her performance adequate for the film, it's really one of the more nuanced and profound performances I've seen in quite some time. Meryl Streep might be the queen of impersonation and accents, but Kirsten Dunst is the one to beat during this year's awards season. Her performance is stunning.

      The other performers do a good job, particularly Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is relegated to playing what is essentially the audience. Justine's brick wall of emotion is so indecipherable that Trier had to add a character who substitute's all of Justine's emotions for us.

     For the last couple of decades, Lars Von Trier has been writing and directing films that show us exactly what he is afraid of. He is famously scared of everything, having never ridden an airplane in his life, or gone overseas, or even left Europe. He has attempted suicide, accepted Hitler into his heart, and forced Bjork to quit acting, and yet he continues on in his quest to make the world's bleakest movie. I thought that maybe Antichrist, in all of its excruciating, violent, and upsetting glory, was the end result of this quest.

    I was wrong.

   Melancholia is. And it is also the most brilliant movie of his career.

I give Melancholia 9/10 electric fingers

[Note: One small problem I had with the film is that Claire and Justine are sisters, yet one of them has a French-British accent and one sounds like she's from Maryland. Their parents are both British, as well as pretty much everybody else in the movie who isn't Keifer Sutherland. But I got over it.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Movie Review: Take Shelter

          Michael Shannon's eyes have been put to great use in the last decade. You might know him from Revolutionary Road, where he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of John Givings, the math professor who has had a psychotic break. Sometimes actors are just born to play a certain type. Tim Blake Nelson has made an excellent career of playing rural idiots, Michael Douglas has made his fortune playing high-class snobs. The list goes on.

         Of course, there are certain pitfalls to this kind of typecasting. For every George Clooney, where variations on a theme can lead to exciting and surprising results, there is always a Michael Ironside, where the performer is forced to play one note parts until they retire.

        For a while there it was looking like Michael Shannon was going to be stuck in the latter category, forever playing the crazy uncle or the unhinged friend. However, in the last few years, Shannon has done a remarkable job of taking challenging roles that compliment his interesting face and physicality. Take his performance in the underrated masterpiece BUG, where his intense eyes almost make us believe in the insects we can't see. Or his performance in 2009's brilliant My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, where Shannon's performance teeters somewhere between Marlon Brando and Bela Lugosi (no small feat), while simultaneously allowing us to project our own fears and desires onto him.

       It seems that directors have taken note of Shannon's ability to convey emotion without speaking. Perhaps more than any other actor working today, Michael Shannon is the one most suited for silent pictures. His performances are always both understated and bombastic, playing with the balance of the two the way a good musician juggles improvisation and precision.

       And in Jeff Nichols' atmospheric, devastating Take Shelter, Michael Shannon has given us the performance of his career.

      Not since There Will Be Blood have I seen a performance that truly frightened me in this way. Shannon is so believable, so truly unhinged, that I often found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Every movement of his eyes and every twitch of his face has true power. He has mastered the physicality of his performance in such a unique and brilliant way that I could not take my eyes off the screen. He is electric here. Terrifying. I believe every second of his performance, and I can't wait to see what he does with the General Zod in Zack Snyder's upcoming Man of Steel.

      As for the film itself, I'll give you a little background. If you haven't seen the chilling trailer yet, here's a quick summary of the plot. Curtis has been having nightmares for the last few weeks. Each one contains a storm. Whenever the storm comes, something happens to his daughter. The dreams become more vivid and violent as the film goes on, and his visions of the apocalypse begin to invade his waking life. Before long, it becomes unclear as to whether Curtis is truly having visions or just succumbing to mental illness.

       Jeff Nichols' script and direction are incredibly ambitious for the obviously low budget on this film, and his script does a very good job of slowly building the suspense and the macabre atmosphere of the whole thing. The cinematography is still, deliberate, and the shot composition always leaves the main focus of the frame just a little bit obscured. As the film is told through the perspective of Curtis, Nichols uses the cinematography to limit the audience. We aren't allowed to know what Curtis does not, and Nichols wisely leaves it up to us to decide if Curtis is a prophet or just insane.

      The other standout performance in this film is by The Tree of Life and The Help's Jessica Chastain, who seems to have come out of nowhere this year and surprised everyone with three excellent performances in a row. As Curtis' wife, Samantha, Chastain must perform the hardest job in the film--that is, play opposite such a juicy, provocative role and still maintain the audience's attention. And not only does she hold her own next to Shannon's powerhouse performance, but she sometimes exceeds even his abilities and reaches amazing heights. Nichols better be glad he got Chastain when he did, because she is bound for great things in the coming years--and even greater paychecks.

     Of course, Take Shelter isn't perfect. It is a little overwritten, running perhaps fifteen minutes too long, and sometimes the plot beats are a little predictable, but when this film is in its stride, there is really nothing like it. It is haunting, emotional, honest, and, most of all, ambitious.

    See it for Shannon's performance. It is one of the great performances of our time.

I give Take Shelter 8/10 Spooky Dream Sequences