Capsule Collection: Summer/Fall 2011 Viewing, 2011 Part 2

My catch up concludes here with the final 5 films – that I’ve managed to keep track of and remember – watching over the last few months. Hopefully from here on out some stricter criteria – especially on smaller word counts to stymie my propensity to blather – for screening log entries will allow me to keep on top of things again.


Written and Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland

Melancholia opens with a sumptuously gorgeous slow motion sequence before moving into a handheld style. Where Von Trier’s Antichrist‘s opening was slick black and white, not unlike a De Beers diamond ad, Melancholia opens with a series of nearly still visual tableaus that evocatively encapsulate the action of the film. This opening so beautifully sums up the remainder of the film that the remaining narrative is rendered nearly redundant. Von Trier splits his films into two halves, each dedicated to a sister; the first half, Justine, chronicles the doomed marriage of Dunst’s character to an aloof Alexander Skarsgard; the film’s second half, Claire, details the manner in which Gainsbourg’s character and her family cope with the potential end of life as another planet moves to collide with Earth. Von Trier’s filmmaking is often far from subtle, see: a planet named “Melancholia” ending life on earth, but the manner in which he is able to evoke the distance felt by a depressive, the honesty in the family’s frustrated dealings with Justine, is keenly honest. Had these characters been given more weight, or more of an effort made to balance each half against in the other, the film could have achieved more than its mostly visual success.



Midnight in Paris

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams

Woody Allen’s latest film presents itself as one of the most immediately whimsical in his oeuvre, it is, unfortunately, also one of his most clumsily didactic and unsubtle. Midnight In Paris has Owen Wilson as the de-facto Allen character, a screen-writer in Paris with his wife, a man infatuated with a romanticized version Paris, circa the 1920’s, when it was home to the great American writers he loves: Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, etc. Allen, perhaps intentionally, paints each of these figures in broad caricatured strokes when Wilson’s Gil meets them in his fantastical transportation back in time. Gil’s nostalgic yearning to live in this time is both augmented and refuted when he falls for a muse of Picasso, Marion Cotillard’s Adriana, who, herself, yearns to live in another time of Paris’ history. Allen’s vicarious assertion that we should be happy where we are because every time is an insufficient present for someone is fairly pedestrian and ham-fistedly delivered to the audience directly in dialogue. Owen proves himself to be a natural Allen surrogate and his generally confused disposition works well in this context, even if the film around him lacks the charm implicit in its romantic title.



Sucker Punch

Written by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone

Doesn’t an old saying go, “The road to misogyny is paved with good intentions”? Snyder’s Suckerpunch is a strange beast: an adolescent wish-fulfillment visual confection that seeks to espouse – I think anyway – a nerd-friendly paradigm of sexually empowered females. I’m certain someone framed it as such in a pitch meeting. The film conflates fantasy and reality as Emily Browning’s Baby Doll is institutionalized after attacking her abusive step-father; what follows is like The Wizard of Oz stopped by an anime convention on its way to the Moulin Rouge. That premise could bear interesting fruit, however Snyder’s execution neuters even the sort of patriarchy-exploiting empowerment that can be gleaned by embracing feminity’s inherent sexual power. Baby Doll is transported to an alternate reality where she plans escape whenever she dances for the men in charge of the institution/burlesque house; the audience is denied any glimpse of this, instead being shown the battles between various giant samurai and monstrous Nazi analogs. If you are positing an agency to be had through via this means of empowerment, certainly it must be necessary to show this agency in practice, rather than implying it off-screen and robbing it of its effectiveness.



Take Shelter

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, and Shea Whigham

There is something in Michael Shannon’s ease with the unsettled that makes me afraid for him. In Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter Shannon plays Curtis, hard-working husband and father, whose sanity may be leaking away. The dreams that haunt Curtis’ sleep are vivid and strange; a storm comes, bringing a viscous rain and an inversion of the natural order: his dog attacks, strangers steal his child, etc. These dreams have a cumulative effect on Curtis, bolstered by the knowledge that his mother was admitted to an assisted living home when her own mental illness became problematic. The film takes great pains to anchor Curtis’ schizophrenic hallucinations in reality; Curtis is histrionic, he copes in practical ways, but is real and social pressures exert themselves such that obtaining proper care is not possible. Due to the patience of the film and Shannon’s performance, a visceral sort of anxiousness is instilled in the viewer; the film is uncanny in evoking a feeling akin to the organic manner that anxiety, while living in the mind, has deep roots in the body. In a less methodical film the ending’s ambiguity could seem trite, here it opens an array of possibilities, each darker than the next.




X-Men First Class

Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stetz, Matthew Vaughn, and Bryan Singer
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, and Jennifer Lawrence

The franchise of X-Men comics and films function in such a successful manner because the story is, essentially, allegorical to any sort of societal outcast finding acceptance, to anyone who feels, or has felt, marginalized by society. First Class employs this structure well, moving back in time to when the Xavier School was founded, allowing the character of Professor X, played charmingly by James McAvoy, to likewise be seen carving out a space in society for people like himself. The film is also made much stronger for its focus on the relationship between Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, the always spell-binding Michael Fassbender, who has all the charm of James Bond and a mutant power to boot. Each man plays friend and foil to the other, their ideological conflicts equally compelling and complicating any subsequent assignments of the villain role. This pairing binds a film with decent 60’s decor and costumes and a predictable comic-esque plot, its focus on character proving more successful than its more outlandish set pieces and ideas. One of the more successful comic book adaptations, whose success most often resides in remembering that people invest emotion in character more than spectacle.


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