I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.
Nate’s Grade: C
In 1976 San Francisco, Minnie (Bel Powley) is trying to navigate the world of boys and her teenage feelings. She’s 15 years old and wants to be an artist. She lives with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), and her little sister. Minnie has always exhibited a desire to be touched, and the accidental touches of Monroe are exciting her mind. One night, their sense of play crosses a line and the two kiss, and from there Minnie and Monroe carry on a secret tryst.
Refreshingly, The Diary of a Teenage Girl may be one of the few coming-of-age films about a teen woman discovering her sense of sexuality without extolling an overpowering sense of moral judgment. The movie is frank and honest and allows its characters to make mistakes but also learn from them, and the kind of activities others might deem as mistakes or pitfalls might not be deemed as such by our characters, at least at their current point in time. Minnie is such a starkly interesting character, cheerfully independent and naively romantic. Her very first words in the film are, “I just had sex today.” Minnie is a character that enjoys sex and the movie does not punish her for her hormonal impulses. It’s encouraging to see a portrait of a woman who takes agency over her own sexuality. Once she’s discovered sex, it’s like a new world for Minnie. She feels like she’s discovered the secret handshake to being an adult. The world looks different to her. There’s a funny scene where she’s in a record shop and eyeing some of the varying male patrons, imagining what their respective penises might look like, which are depicted with colorful onscreen animation. It’s a nice change of pace to have a movie adopt a female point of view and the Female Gaze, if you will. We see the world as Minnie does, bursting with possibility, pleasure, and excitement. And yet, at the corners, we can sense the contours of doubt, the life lessons that will eventually present themselves to our restless heroine (the audio diary of her sexual escapades with Monroe is a time bomb waiting to happen). These lessons are not one of punishment but one of experience and understanding reminiscent of 2009’s An Education.
Its bracing sense of honesty and its finely attuned perspective also help elevate the film. Minnie’s voice is all over this movie, and not simply because she provides narration. She’s not over precocious or hyper literate; she speaks like an average teenager bursting with feelings and ideas that she has trouble putting into words. There is a sprightly sense of humor that runs throughout, a sense of comedy that get can get naughty while still feeling wonderfully immature. Minnie’s point of view and the way she processes the world, aided with often-animated fantasy and dream sequences, provides plenty of entertainment. Some of the humor is derived from her naiveté and how brashly straightforward she can be about her wishes, but even these moments are free of judgment. Minnie is allowed to be the funny, flawed, and complex creature she is.
Teenage Girl is also a remarkable spotlight for two artists, Powley and debut director Marielle Heller (wife to Lonely Island Boy Jorma Taccone). Powley is a terrific lead and gives Minnie an appealing mixture of curiosity, angst, attitude, and humor. She’s thrown into a different world and trying to adjust as she goes, which leads to plenty of vulnerability and honest reflection. She’s looking for more than sex but doesn’t quite know how to find the companion she desires yet in a culture that values her most as a figure of desire. Powley, it should also be noted, is British (though you’d never know) and 22 at the time of filming. There are several sex scenes and nude sequences for Minnie that can be uncomfortable to watch given the age of the character. I never felt the movie was being exploitative with its lead actress and character. There’s a moment when Minnie stands naked before a mirror, touching her body, and openly hoping for someone who will love her as a whole. These moments are meant to be awkward and raw and they achieve that power without feeling exploitative. Powley’s performance is such a natural and cutting teenage performance with touches of Maggie Gyllenhaal in her voice. This is the kind of character that a young actress desperately hopes for and luckily Powley was gifted the right director.
Heller, who also adapted the script based upon the semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has a definite feel for the material and keeps the tone controlled. It would be very easy for this story to veer into tawdry with its sensationalist elements, and yet it feels far more grounded in the reality of a teenage girl discovering how to interact with men and the power she has within her. There are some cringe-worthy moments between Minnie and Monroe but the movie doesn’t tell us how to feel and instead challenges the audience. Monroe isn’t presented as some leering and lascivious pederast. He is presented as yet another flawed individual who is wrestling with conflicted feelings; he knows what he’s doing with Minnie is wrong but he can’t quite quit her. There’s a level of sympathy toward his character that doesn’t excuse his actions and weaknesses. Charlotte, in contrast, is a character that speaks the language of the 1970s enlightened feminist but has shackled her subconsciously, setting up reoccurring failures for herself because she has difficulty taking responsibility for herself. When she gets a big check from her concerned ex-boyfriend (Christopher Meloni), she frivolously spends it on drugs. By the end of the movie, Minnie acknowledges that her mother will always think she needs a man, a provider, to simply get by in this life. Heller’s feel for these characters is sharp and the ambiguity she affixes is appreciated.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age drama that sits unique amongst the burgeoning subgenre of teen angst and broken hearts mostly because it is female-focused and free of judgment or moral castigation. Our heroine learns about the world, learns the power and pitfalls of sex and the potential enjoyment, and yet she still gets to be herself, free of long-term scarring punishment usually befit a Lifetime original movie on the sordid subject. Even better, Minnie is an intensely interesting and entertaining character that freely shares her frank perspective. The film adopts her perspective and Teenage Girl comes across and far more honest about its characters and about growing up. Powely is a standout and destined for further great things, and the supporting cast all perform ably. There isn’t a bad or misplaced actor in a beautiful looking film. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (man do my fingers really confuse this title with the name of that cheesy ABC Family TV show starring a young Shailene Woodley) is a smart, funny, provocative yet mature and welcomed slice-of-life story that feels painfully honest and praiseworthy. It’s a story that doesn’t excuse or condemn the actions of any of its characters. It’s a film that takes chances and reaps rewards from its risk-taking. It can feel like watching a slow-moving car slide into a ditch, but you’ll be glued to the screen throughout.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Did you know that What Maisie Knew is based on a novel by Henry James that was published in 1897? I sure didn’t, but then again my knowledge of Mr. James is somewhat limited. James’ tale of negligent parents passing off their daughter back and forth was controversial when the novel was first published. Updated to modern-day New York City, seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the pawn in her parents’ contentious divorce. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is constantly on his phone and making out-of-country trips. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging lead singer for a 90s alt rock band who also likes to party. Beale remarries Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a young woman who previously served as Maisie’s nanny. Not to be outdone, Susanna remarries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), an affable bartender who’s somewhat clueless around kids. Everyone is trying to navigate the tricky new relationships and what they think is best for Maisie, though Lincoln and Margo seem to be the only ones who actually care.
When it comes to divorce dramas, the easy way is to go big, to ramp up the emotions of such an emotionally distraught experience, and to tip into the overwrought territory of melodrama. I can already imagine the animated shouting fests and crying fests. Then there’s the impulse to go the bitterness route, like 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, where the movie takes a cue from its feuding parents and infuses the film with a dark, overpowering sense of acrimony. I credit directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) for making arguably one of the most subdued movies about divorce I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not flippant in the slightest, treating the subject, and mainly the toxic effect on Maisie, with sincerity and good taste. But as far as overblown shouting matches, they’re kept to a minimum and mostly comprise the first fifteen minutes of the movie, establishing the inevitable divorce of Susanna and Beale. The movie ignores the sensational and focuses on the ordinary, little moments of complete believability that serve to build, like brick by brick, the overall reality of the story. You’ll watch the film and think to yourself that, even with parents with completely outlandishly rich professions, that everything in this movie could realistically happen. Weird to think that James wrote his tale over 100 years ago and yet how relatable his conflicts still are to this day. However, because of this subdued, naturalistic approach, What Maisie Knew can’t quite find a proper ending. The one presented seems a tad too pat and tidy for this movie. It almost approaches a“happy ending,” though not quite. Still, knowing how thick-skulled both Susanna and Beale are, it’s hard to think that they will ever come to their senses and do what’s in the best interest of Maisie.
This can be an uncomfortable movie to watch because Maisie’s mom and dad are so destructively neglectful and self-involved. There’s a perverse rubbernecking draw to seeing the antics of truly awful parenting. You’ll find yourself getting very mad at how terrible these people are at being human beings. Susanna and Beale interrogate their daughter for ammo they can use against the other, twisting and manipulating the kid that we wonder if either truly cares about. Dad’s always full of excuses and mom’s looking to flee from responsibility at a moment’s notice, dumping her daughter on her latest boyfriend. You’ll find yourself easily sympathizing with Lincoln and Margo, the two people who love Maisie most and would make the best parents for her. I began rooting that they just abduct Maisie and start a new life as a family in a different country. The unchecked narcissism of both Susanna and Beale could serve as a clinical study. It’s a wonder that Maisie seems like a bright, playful, and relatively normal kid. For now.
Another aspect of McGehee and Siegel’s joint direction that I really enjoyed was how the movie takes on the perspective of little Maisie; she is our eyes and ears, and often the camera framing will instinctively mirror her own point of view, cutting off adults. It’s an interesting visual approach but it also further tethers us to this girl, forcing us to think even deeper about Maisie’s perspective, and how she’s interpreting the angry words. I suppose there is a valid argument to be had that a seven-year-old child is going to be a rather limited perspective on such a contentious conflict. There’s also the nature of Maisie. She’s a relatively quiet child, given to poking her head around corners and staring with those big glassy eyes of hers. Given the fact that she’s a child, and processing a painful life experience, don’t expect her to divulge too much about her thoughts and feelings. She’s an opaque presence and I realize that that can get frustrating for some. She’s not the kind of kid that’s going to burst into tantrums. This girl is internalizing all the pain and confusion. Having a passive prism for your movie might be akin to telling a love story from the point of view of a potted fern. Literally anchoring the camerawork to Maisie (I don’t want to oversell this as if it’s a stylistic gimmick) forces us to constantly think of every action through its impact upon Maisie. It’s not exactly a coming of age or loss of innocence tale but more a combination of the two.
If you’re going to have a child be the star of your movie, you better choose wisely. I’ve found that as I grow older I have less tolerance for poor child actors. Perhaps it’s my inner Scrooge. Good thing that little Aprile (Yellow) is so effortlessly heartbreaking as she tries to find her way amidst her changing home life. One day she has a mom and dad, then she’s splitting time, then her daddy has a new mommy, who happens to be her old nanny, and then mommy has a new husband as well (Susanna admits she got remarried simply to improve her court standing). Aprile nicely underplays her character’s innate vulnerability while still reminding you of her youth. She’ll get scared and ask to go home, crying alone in her bed, and your heart will ache. I cannot say whether the strength of Aprile’s performance lies more with her legitimate skills as an actress, good direction, or the general reticence of the character, and thus the lesser demands for a child.
Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Coogan (The Trip) give surprisingly textured performances, at least more so than the opening fifteen minutes would have you believe. They can both be monstrous and callously indifferent to their daughter’s well being, but as the movie concludes, each one of them has a small moment where they realize the damage they are inflicting upon their child, how poor a parent they have been (Susanna even lashes out at Lincoln’s encouragement to Maisie as “undermining her as a parent”). It’s much more than I was anticipating and both actors do good work at being unlikable without going overboard. Fans of TV’s True Blood might just swoon a little harder thanks to Skarsgard’s good-natured, humble, and mildly affecting performance as a man who becomes profoundly attached to Maisie. He may not know what he’s doing but isn’t that parenting as a whole? Skarsgard and the charming Vanderham make a great onscreen pair and their genuine affection for Maisie provide the most uplifting moments.
When it comes to parenting, there are no magic instructions to insure a responsible, loving, thoughtful, and independent human being. It’s a leap of blind faith. However, it’s much easier to predict the events that can screw up an impressionable child (do not misconstrue this as my declaration that children of divorce are, at heart, broken somehow). The thought of collateral damage is fresh in our minds as we track little Maisie trying to survive the reach of her terrible parents. The terse arguments can be painful but even more painful is the overall negligence of her rich and mostly absent, self-involved parents. What Maisie Knew isn’t a downer of a movie and its subject matter is given proper seriousness and reflection. You’ll likely cringe at points, may even grumble under your breath, but in the end it ends on a hopeful note, the possibility that Maisie, under the right guidance, could turn out to be the bright kid we see glimpses of at her school. There’s something quite moving about the resiliency of a child. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the movie, but What Maisie Knew is an emotionally engaging, subdued, sincere, and poignant film that trades on naturalistic waves of human interaction rather than cartoonish bluster, all the while forgoing cheap sentimentality or unpleasant bitterness. For the performances, the deft handling of sensitive material, and the quality direction, give What Maisie Knew a chance when able.
Nate’s Grade: B+
On the surface, the classic board game Battleship would seem like a rather peculiar property to develop into a feature film. Unless someone was going the crafty Das Boot route, why would anybody even want to adapt the board game? And for that matter, why would anyone want to adapt the game and add killer aliens from outer space? Well actor-turned-director Peter Berg looked at the classic board game with the little pegs and the declarations of battleships sunk and said, “There’s a big summer movie in there.” With a hefty budget of $200 million, which is becoming alarmingly the norm for summer tent pole releases, Berg’s efforts have given birth to Battleship: The Movie. If it becomes a hit maybe it will start a trend. Who wouldn’t want to see Hungry, Hungry Hippos as a monster movie, or Connect Four as a searing domestic drama about alcoholism?
Off the Hawaiian Islands, the Navy is conducting an annual series of international war games in the Pacific. Oh but little did they expect to have to combat intergalactic foes. Alien spaceships crash land to Earth, emerging from the Pacific and creating a force field barrier. Along for the high seas action are the stoic Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard), his screw-up little brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch), a Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano), and a mess of other Navy personnel, including pop star Rihanna. On the other side of that force field is Alex’s girlfriend, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), a naval physical therapist who finds herself in the middle of the aliens communications plans. The handful of Navy ships, some American and some Japanese, must figure out a way to topple the aliens before they get their communications up and running to broadcast that Earth is ripe for the taking.
For some, Battleship will be the symbol of everything wrong with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, a perceived slapdash effort meant to appeal to as many mass markets as possible, combining clichés and empty action sequences into a cacophony of noise deigned entertainment. And for most of those charges, I cannot defend Battleship. It has its fair share of clichés, gaps in logic, and some especially corny moments (WWII geezers save the day!). And yet, I found myself becoming entranced by Berg’s siren song, laughing at the comic relief, enjoying the stock characters enough to root for their triumphs, and having a total gas with the action sequences. I was shocked at how much fun I was having with Battleship. Perhaps that means that from a mechanical standpoint it knows all the pinpoints of the summer blockbuster model and knows how to craft a satisfying crowd-pleaser of an action movie. Or perhaps it just means I have lost my mind. Or maybe this is Berg’s expertly crafted satire of the Michael Bay School of filmmaking, brilliantly capturing the beautiful bombast and cheery jingoism of Bay’s career, especially when those salty WWII vets get to strut in slow motion. A movie based upon the board game Battleship is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and Berg’s nautical adventure wants nothing more than to entertain the masses. Whatever the case may be, Battleship, weirdly enough works, and for some significant stretches, it works really well in the mold of summer spectacle.
I’m relieved that Berg has left behind his rigid docu-drama cinema verite approach he’s patterned after working on 2004’s Friday Night Lights. Berg’s verite style felt completely mismatched with 2008’s Hancock, an inexplicable global hit. With Battleship, Berg’s cameras settle down and give you plenty of action to soak up. Berg’s first foray into action, 2003’s The Rundown, was like the announcement of a great new talent and the herald of The Rock’s ascent in action. I’ve been waiting for Berg to return to that style he displayed with The Rundown, a slick, highly stylized flair, brimming with robust energy that popped at all the right moments. Thankfully, with his biggest budget yet, it’s like the return of the old Berg. Perhaps it’s just a reaction against the overindulgence of the “shaky cam” action style popularized by the Paul Greengrass Bourne films, but it’s nice to be able to actually follow what is happening. Berg’s cameras find different and exciting ways to frame the action. I enjoyed the speedy zoom outs to illustrate the size of the field of battle. The visuals really do feel like Berg is parlaying Bay’s shooting style, the tawny glow of people’s skin, especially women, a.k.a. sex objects, the fetishized ogling of giant toys/military hardware, the soaring camera. But unlike most of Bay’s pedigree, it’s spectacle on a mass scale without turning into a glorified video game.
The action in Battleship is huge but never dull. The scale of the demolition does not get out of hand because the movie works in shifts, focusing on pockets of action before ramping up to something even bigger and better. The alien tech, particularly the spheroids that munch through metal like the Langoliers (please, somebody tell me they remember that Stephen King TV movie), is impressively powerful without feeling completely over matched. Being totally obliterated in the movies has its own thrill, but seeing a slug fest between man and alien is more compelling. Watching the Navy go blow-for-blow and eventually triumph through ingenuity in the face of adverse odds makes for some pretty satisfying action. The Navy is learning through trial and, much, error about how to combat these alien antagonists. I enjoyed the tactile nature of the battles. I must say I found the film to be weirdly informative about the attack features of naval war vessels. I don’t know if its genius or absurd that the movie finds a way to organically squeeze in the actual Battleship game play (the alien bombs also look like pegs from the board game). The aliens are something of a mystery and kept that way. When we do see them minus their Halo helmets, you wish they kept those helmets on. They have some unexplained moral code, as we cut to alien POVs that scan for threats, choosing to spare innocent lives in other circumstances. When the alien spacecraft fist appear, they take up position in a row and wait for their Earthly challengers to strike. It reminded me of the fighting sequences in turn-based RPG video games. These aliens are more sporting than your typical interstellar advanced civilization just interested in conquest. These aliens are into turn-based RPGs. These aliens are nerds.
With all that surprising praise now established, Battleship the movie is still chock full of ridiculous moments and a rather leaky plot. The subplot involving a double-amputee veteran getting back his groove via alien invasion never feels well grafted to the major storyline. It feels like it was crowbarred in after the producers or Berg saw real-life double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson and declared, “This man needs to be in a movie.” He’s likeable enough but over the course of 130 minutes you realize likeable isn’t the same as being a skilled actor. This entire subplot involving Gadson, Samantha, and a computer techie (the amusing Hamish Linklater) strains credulity even for a dumb action movie. The fact that three easily over matched people can take out a load of well-armed aliens with little more than a Jeep and a briefcase mitigates the life-and-death stakes at sea. If these alien bad guys can lose so stupidly, then what’s the hold up? Also, the movie inserts a lot of bizarre tension between Japan and the U.S., like it’s trying to iron out the last unresolved conflict from the Second World War. The term “inelegant” cannot come close to describing the nativsm conflict and its dopey resolution. And then there’s the fact that the movie is long giant recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy. I suppose after the Marines had their own alien-fighting flick/recruitment ad last year (Battle: Los Angeles), the other branches of the armed services felt left out. I pray no one ever enlists over something this silly. No major life decisions should be made over the big screen adaptation of Battleship, people.
There’s a paucity of solid characters here. We get the bad boy younger brother who will discover his mettle and leadership by the end (by the by: having characters keep talking about how much “potential” somebody has is the annoying non-fantasy equivalent of talking about a prophecy being fulfilled). Kitsch comes off better than he did in Disney’s costly flop John Carter, but he seems too stiff and sullen for a leading man. If Battleship sinks, expect his leading man status to get dry-docked (okay, I’ll lay off the puns). Decker (Just Go with It) is still working out the kinks of transitioning from model to actress. Her romance with Kitsch is about as contrived as these things get in big action movies, a pathetic bone thrown to a deflated female audience who would rather see Decker in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The additional seamen, including Rihanna’s acting debut (insert your “S.O.S.” joke here), are given one-note to play for over two hours. And as far as Ms. Umbrella-ella-ella is concerned, it’s certainly not the worst acting debut by a pop star (see: Crossroads, or better yet, don’t). Most disappointing is Neeson (Taken) who spends the far, far majority of the movie on the wrong side of the force field. I want this guy kicking ass and not barking impotently into a phone.
I don’t know if I can look myself in the mirror and declare, with solemn dignity, that Battleship is a good movie by the normal standards of objective excellence. Screw it, I had far too much fun with this film to stand back and pretend the movie’s flaws are too overpowering. Berg has slapped together what may be the most formulaic, pinpointed Big Summer Movie I’ve witnessed in some time, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t win me over. They may be pushing buttons but Berg and company pushes them so well. Plus, I’m still uncertain whether or not the entire bloated affair is really the most expensive, subversive swipe at Michael Bay ever attempted. This is probably just wishful thinking from a critic looking to justify liking this movie. It’s got plenty of action, though doled out into bite-sized portions before the ACDC “Thunderstruck” montage ramps up the finale. Every now and then, you need a movie that gives you the right kind of stupid, and Battleship is the right kind of stupid for the summer movie season.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Melancholia opens with a bang. Literally. Lars von Trier, film’s most polarizing and famous sadist, begins his movie with the ultimate spoiler alert, destroying the entire planet. Lars von Trier’s grandiose exploration of annihilation, both personal and species-level, can be maddening in how tedious the whole affair can become for long stretches. What’s even more maddening is that the movie flirts with being magnificent for other, regrettably smaller, stretches.
We open with the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard). Hours late, the couple arrives at their reception at the palatial estate that belongs to her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, amateur astronomer John (Kiefer Sutherland). Over the course of one very late night, Justine will quit her job, sleep with a random wedding guest, alienate her family, and end her brief marriage, putting Kim Kardashian to shame. Several months later, Justine has been released from a hospital for clinical depression and is now living with Claire and John’s along with their young son, Leo. A tiny star in the sky has gotten larger over the ensuing months, and scientists have determined that this new planet is heading straight for Earth. Named Melancholia, this rogue space rock is predicted to pass by, but the calculations are getting closer and closer. Eventually, the truth is evident and Melancholia is on a cataclysmic collision course with Earth.
From a plot standpoint, the movie is completely lopsided. Melancholia opens with beautiful images that…. just…. keep…. going…. on…. and… on… set to thunderous Wagnerian overtures. It lets us know right away that von Trier is performing at an operatic level of melodrama. After this spoiler sequence, we jump back to the last months of Earth. The first hour of this movie is a boring wedding sequence that just seems to stretch for an eternity. You may wish that the rogue planet would show up and smash everyone to bits so we could get on with it. Justine and her groom are already several hours late because of the precarious route their limo had to take, so the fact that Justine takes frequent breaks and needs to be constantly retrieved can be draining. The hour of wedding blahs would be better time spent if I felt von Trier was laying the groundwork for characters. Little of the first hour seems to matter at all or has any lingering ramifications, which is bizarre considering the amount of personal nosedives Justine takes. It’s plain to see that Justine is unhappy and going through the motions, pretending to be happy for everyone’s benefit and maybe, just maybe, she can trick herself. What’s not plain to see is why we have to spend so much time on a room full of characters that will never be seen again. We learn so little about the characters, their relationships, and why any of this matters. The first half of this movie could have easily been condensed to 20 minutes. If the point was to test the audience’s patience, much like Justine does to her family, then bravo.
It’s that second hour where Melancholia flirts with the profound. The second half only concerns four principal characters. Unlike the first monotonous hour, there are events that actually matter and have substance to them, namely the encroaching obliteration of Earth. Having seen the pre-credit preview, we already know every life on the planet is doomed, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the same pangs of anxiety as Claire discovers what we already know. Depression may be an elusive personal experience that not everybody can empathize with, especially when the depressed individual becomes overly taxing, but coming to terms with the end, not just your own, but of all of human history? That’s something every person can identify with. This confrontation of the inevitable can lead to some thoughtful soul-searching. This is an extinction event. There is no escape, unless you’re an astronaut (it’s now or never, lunar colonists).
Like most of us would be, Claire is terrified to die, to have all her loved ones die, but Justine is eerily placid. She feels that the Earth is evil and that “nobody will miss it.” To further drive von Trier’s bleak pessimism, Justine says there is no other life elsewhere in the universe. This is it, and it’ll all be over soon. “I just know,” she adds, unhelpfully. We watch Claire go through different stages of grief, fighting for some sense of closure, but von Trier will not allow any comforts. Gainsbourg was put through Trier’s typical emotional wringer in 2009’s unpleasant Antichrist, and here she’s really the entry point for the audience, and as such we sympathize the most with her since her reactions are so believable. It’s hard to feel like there’s any bond between these two sisters, which limits the impact of the end. Still, the end is fittingly devastating and makes me wish I had seen the beautiful destruction on the big screen, bathing in its apocalyptic splendor.
The dread of that final hour is extremely palpable, with the presence of Melancholia in the sky played almost like an art-house existential horror movie. At first we’re told by John that the scientists predict it will fly-by at roughly 60,000 miles per hour, but slowly the realization becomes clear that Melancholia is coming back with a vengeance. There’s a terrific plot point where John introduces a way to judge the planet’s movement. A wire circle is held out at arm’s reach, designed to trace around the perimeter of Melancholia. Then five minutes later the wire ring goes back up and, voila, the rogue planet has shrunken in size or gained. It’s a smart device that helps establish the momentum of doom, and it’s practical enough for the characters to perform. As Melancholia comes closer to collision, it gives off an unnerving blue glow. I started joking with my friend Alan that the movie was going to descend into a slasher-style stalker movie, with Melancholia chasing to get you like a spurned and dangerous lover (“We’ve traced the phone call. The planet is calling from inside the house!”). These attempts at levity are inevitable when the subject matter is so depressing and the nature of von Trier’s film lends itself to operatic pomposity.
von Trier’s film is quite a departure from the most disaster cinema, but sometimes its Big Statements can seem inartful and obvious. The very idea that the planet of doom in this dance of death is called Melancholia… come on. Maybe this whole thing would have been avoided had those egghead astronomers had given this rogue planet a happier name (My suggestion: “Doug.”). The metaphorical connection to Justine’s own melancholy is just inane. The planet is but a tiny speck in the sky at her wedding, and Justine is desperately trying to hold it together, and then in the second half the planet is much bigger and, surprise, so is Justine’s melancholy.
I found it hard to care about Justine and her personal demons. Depression and mental illness can be exasperating conditions, but that doesn’t mean I sympathized with her any more than the other seven billion souls destined to be incinerated. Her rejection of niceties can seem cold when all her sister wants to do is find some level of reassurance before the end is near. Dunst (Marie Antoinette) won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance, and it’s hard for me to see why. It’s a darker, somber, more serious role for the actress, but looking tired, sullen, and impassive doesn’t come across as a fully rendered performance, more of a bad mood swing. My feelings are likely tempered by the fact that I found her character to be unbearable and agonizingly opaque
Melancholia is half of a great movie, but only half. The movie can feel a little too isolated, a little too leisurely paced, a little too pretentious. The beginning wedding sequence is like a minor endurance test, but rewards await those who carry on to the bitter end. This uneven art-house disaster movie has stunning imagery, numbing dread, and an apocalyptic grandeur, the likes of which could only come from the perverse mind of Lars von Trier. It’s beautiful and lyrical in its best moments, a cold, surrealist nightmare. The boldness of von Trier’s vision is inescapable, but I only wished he had fashioned a better story and sharper characters for his experiment in nihilism. If we’re going to spend the last few hours on Earth, I’d rather it be with people I gave a damn about.
Nate’s Grade: B-