Monday, April 6, 2015

Notes for the End of the World: a quartet of fatalism

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World -  2012, Lorene Scafaria - netflix
It's A Disaster - 2012, Todd Berger - netflix
These Final Hours - 2013, Zak Hilditch - netflix
Melancholia - 2011, Lars Von Trier - netflix

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We may not always agree, as the title of our little website says, but one thing David and I can always agree on is we're fascinated by end of the world-type movies. I don't know what it is about watching characters face their impending doom, but based on premise alone it's going to be a deep, possibly philosophical, probably emotional journey.  Though these types of movies by conceit alone must end with the end of the world (Spoiler Alert), they aren't necessarily completely depressing or bleak, as the main characters' journeys invariably end with them finding some sense of peace and acceptance. Sure, there's a hopelessness and inevitability that pervades the proceedings, but the fantasy of it is in going out feeling satisfied.  Another draw to these types of stories is, in part, the feeding feeding of that nihilistic bit of us that sometimes would just like it all to be over with, and knowing that we're not missing out on anything.  The end of the world is the ultimate in shared experiences.

There's a difference between impending apocalypse movies where there's no potential salvation, and possible apocalypse movies like Armageddon or Deep Impact or 2012 or any zombie movie, where the main theme of the movie is hope and survival.   Often those type of movies -- particularly the bigger, Hollywood mainstream vehicles -- seem to think that most of humanity perishing (save for a few main characters) is better than all of humanity perishing, whereas I think that having a main character face not just his or her own mortality, but the end of everything, can be a much more interesting, unique and individualistic journey.  Given the rise of zombies in pop culture, and the ongoing prevalence of post-apocalyptic stories (can't wait for Mad Max: Fury Road) it seems en masse we're more interested in the survival angle than with finality, and like fantasy/nightmare worlds that result more than no world at all.  As such, I find films like these are little gems, affecting and effective.

Here are four films I found on Netflix that deal with the end.  (A couple other recommendations: Don McKellar's Last Night (1998), The Rapture (1991) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961))

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Watching Seeking a Friend for the End of the World was a shocking experience, moreso than any of the other of the films I'll discuss here, since this was a major Hollywood motion picture starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightly that was sold as either a comedy romp or a romantic comedy (depending on the trailer or commercial) rather than a fairly bleak tale about the actual end of the world.  I mean, "the end of the world" is actually telegraphed in the title, so why didn't I expect the actual world to end?

The opening minutes of this film are as cold and sobering as any on this list.  Relationships fall apart, people commit suicide, riots break out, desperation and depression reign.  Carell's Dodge (that's his character's name, I'm not referring to his truck) had his wife literally jump out of the car when word was given of the failure of a rocket meant to destroy an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.  He's pretty bummed out thereafter, but still making the slow journey into work only to have a coworker's body smash into the hood of his car.  A party held by friends raises his spirits none, and the thought of meeting anyone new just to be with someone at the end seems meaningless.  When he formally meets his flighty British ex-pat neighbour Penny (Knightly) for the first time, she's just looking for an escape from her ex, and Dodge offers her the couch.  They make friendly but it's little more than that, until she gives Dodge 3 years' worth of mail that got mis-sorted into her box.  Among the letters is one from his high-school sweetheart whom he never got over requesting reconciliation. With his journey set before him, Penny is dragged along since a riot is approaching their building.  An unusual road trip ensues.

At every turn I was expecting the film to turn into the comedy it was promoted as, yet by the halfway point, it was obvious this was never intended to be a straight up comedy (despite the stunt casting of many comedic actors like Rob Coddry, Rob Huebel, Patton Oswalt, T.J.Miller, as Gillian Jacobs), but rather a drama with the odd moment of comedy.  And even when it is aiming for levity there's an undercurrent of unease.  The film never finds a stable tone.  It wants to be funny but it won't commit to the levity, and it wants to be a drama but it wasn't cast to be such.  It doesn't aim to be romantic, at least not until the third act where it's evident that these two characters share a connection, but even though it kind of works, the romance doesn't ring true (I'm still trying to decide if the movie is saying they connect so deeply because it's the last connection they will make in their lives, or if it's truly something deeper... I think it wants to be the latter but I have a hard time buying it for real).

It's actually a quite potent movie, but not a consistent movie and certainly not the movie that was originally sold.

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Of the four films here, It's A Disaster is the odd one out because it's not actually an end-of-the-world scenario.  It's an end-of-their-world scenario, but the world as a whole isn't ending.  It hits a lot of the same notes as an end-of-the-world story does, hence why it fits.  Like Seeking a Friend..., this film was sold as a comedy.  Unlike Seeking a Friend..., this one is actually a comedy.  A dark comedy, but funny nonetheless.

The film finds a group of friends gathering for a couples brunch in a suburban home.  Tracy (Julia Stiles) is bringing her new boyfriend Glenn (David Cross) to meet her friends for the first time, finally confident she hasn't found one that's crazy.  Famous for their brunches, their hosts, Shane (Jeff Grace) and Emma (Erinn Hayes) are hiding that they're getting a divorce.  Drug addled musicians Buck (Kevin Brennan) and Lexi (Rachel Boston) are very freewheeling and flirtatious, while Hedy (America Ferrera) and Pete (Jeff Grace) have been engaged for five years with no actual plans to get married.

Cross starts as the audience surrogate as he attempts to navigate the awkward dynamics of the group, but the film quickly and smartly establishes each of the characters and their individual interpersonal dynamics.  Very soon we get a sense of who each of these characters are, with no real surprises (save one) added on, just more depth.  I like the low-stakes dynamics of the group's interpersonal conflicts (it feels very much like a long-lived group of friends, complete with longstanding issues and tensions that have to be carefully traversed) measured against the very large threat outside their doors.

The imposition of the terrorist attack on their lives provides a very interesting vehicle for these characters to explore their relationships with each other, while at the same time never forgetting to address the problem outside.  A lot of the conversation, for instance, happens when they all search the house for a working battery operated radio.  When one of the characters mentions they remembered taking a shower and seeing a shower radio, the briefly celebrate, until one of the homeowners says "Wait, when did you take a shower here?"

It's a pretty note-perfect dark comedy through to its not-quite conclusion.  And it's really quite refreshing to see Cross playing a nice, normal guy (well,,,,) for a change.  He's surprisingly good at it.

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These Final Hours is an Australian feature about the looming end of the world and one detached young man's desire to avoid it.  James (Nathan Phillips) leaves the woman he loves behind at an oceanfront home to head inland for an end-of-the-world blowout party.  He doesn't want to feel a thing.  But the journey inland is interrupted by a crazed machete wielding maniac, forcing him from his car.  After successfully fleeing, he searches for a vehicle to continue his journey only to witness two men carrying a screaming young girl from their van into their home.  He wrestles with stealing their van and leaving and saving the girl, but ultimately saves the girl.  Rose wants desperately to reunite with her dad for the end of the world and James at first wants to off-load her, to find someone else who will help her, but ultimately decides it's his mission, not anyone else's.

James' life has been anything but a virtuous one, so to take care of this child, to help her find her peace when he can't seem to find his own, gives him some meaning.  The story is a redemption tale, not for any one thing James did, but making up for a life wasted seeking escape instead of actually living it the way that meant anything.


Like Seeking a Friend..., it's largely framed around a road trip, that finds strange and unsettling encounters with people and how they're dealing with the end of the world.  James makes it to the party, with Rose in tow, and the moment he arrives you can tell he's unsure why he's there.  Where this was his objective, his mission, he now looks upon this celebration with disgust, more in regards to his once-strong desire to be there than the people who seem more than content to be there.

It's not a flawless movie, but it's got a strong arc and it's quite well acted.  There's a few pained cliches, such as the radio narrator's updates on when the annihilation wave will hit (in this scenario, the meteor has already hit North America and it's some hours before the wave of fire crawls its way to Australia), even when the radio isn't on (total shades of Vanishing Point), and James' last minute reunion.  Yet, even the cliches are used well.  I liked the meeting of James and his mother the best.  Quite obvious that these two had an exceptionally strained relationship, and even though it's the end of the world the bad blood doesn't totally come clean.  Yet, they still get their moment, and it's absolutely beautiful.

Where most of these movies blink out with a blinding white light, this one ends facing the wave of fire, the heat searing before the wave even hits.  It's such a different visual, impressively rendered.

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Finally, there's Melancholia, the big one in this group.  It's the one from the biggest-name director, Lars Von Trier, and the one backed with the most acclaim, making plenty of best-of lists, including the Dissolve's best of the decade (so far). It's easy to see why this has garnered such attention during the opening minutes, a lengthy montage of breathtakingly staged, slow motion photos that foreshadow the events of the film, set to Wagner. These disparate yet kinetically charged visuals slowly reveal their meaning as the film progresses, but the film can't quite sustain the sad glory that this prologue delivers.

What follows is a remarkable film indeed, but not necessarily a likable one.  The film is divided into two arcs, one centered on Justine (Kirsten Dunst in easily her career-best performance) on her wedding day, the other her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the days that follow.  The story opens with Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) in the back of a limosine stuck in a tight turn on a road in the back country.  At times Justine looks utterly miserable, at times she laughs, at times it seems she's putting on a smile because she should.  They're late for their reception, which is at the  immense family estate of her brother-in-law, John (Keifer Sutherland).  An elaborate and intricate evening has been planned and Claire, John and the wedding planner (a curiously delightful Udo Kier) are excessively stressed an annoyed.  Her boss (Stellan Skarsgard), in his toast, has both promoted her and requested a new tagline for a campaign by the evening's end, dangling his nephew's career in front of her if she fails.

Justine tries to keep a brave face as much as she tries to keep interest in the whole affair but her mindstate won't let her.  Her sister tries to coax her through but just sees Justine's depression as a thing she does.  Michael meanwhile offers her the promise of a tranquil apple orchard to help her be happy.  In both cases, their intentions are good, but obvious that neither truly understands what is happening.  Justine's apathy starts into self-destructive behavior, her mother is cold and detached as ever and her father seeks party and escaping from reality.  Justine desperately wants the compassion, solace and care of her parents and receives nothing despite her pleas.  What inevitably results is one of the most cataclysmic of all wedding receptions.

Meanwhile, when dusk broke, a new star had appeared in the sky.  John cites it as Antares. By the end of the evening Antares was gone.

When Claire's segment begins, the world is preparing for a rogue planet, named Melancholia, to pass by Earth in a couple days' time.  Claire feels a heavy sense of foreboding but John constantly reassures her that it's just a fly-by, that it will be the greatest astrological event in history, but everything is fine.  Clare reads doomsday sites and doesn't know how to prepare herself.  Meanwhile, they take Justine in, who has become practically crippled with melancholy, barely able to move.

As the planet moves closer, Justine seems ever more at ease; not happy, just accepting.  Meanwhile Claire's angst accelerates and she doesn't understand Justine's calm, perhaps even envious of it.

The film is a potent look at depression, conveying very well (for the most part) the difficulty of carrying on when the hold gets so strong.  It's not just apathy, or sadness, or lack of concern for others or one's self, and it's not that those are all happening at once, but they are all part of it, and Dunst expertly portrays faking one's way through life because of what's expected of them.  Justine's depression obviously reaches greater depths, but Clare's anxieties, and the portrayal of her attempts to deny them, assuage them, or accept them are equally grounded, despite the surreal trigger.

Yet, for as good as the film does at creating these immensely complex portrayals of depression and anxiety, and doing so while manufacturing an absolutely wondrous event to frame them around, Von Trier laces his film with more than a few moments of upper class bullshit that makes it hard to fully enjoy.  These characters witness the event of Melancholy's arrival but without a single radio or television broadcast or phone call or text to precede it (only Clare's internet search shows signs of a world outside of John's family estate).  It's all very quaint, riding around on horses to a bridge they won't cross (the same bridge which the golf cart won't cross later), as if there's some perimeter to these events that isn't affecting the rest of society.  The rich get a beautiful cataclysm all their own.

It's not just the setting, the lack of any reality outside the estate, but the lame moments of rich people behaving badly.  These mostly involving the elder Skarsgard's influence on Justine's evening, like his "toast", Justine having sex with his nephew on the golf course, his tirade after Justine tells him off, or his nephew's "proposal" after Michael storms out on her.  It's all rather broad for a film otherwise laced with more subtlety.  There's a pretentiousness in any filmmaking that thinks it can get away with such overt ham-fistedness within its story.  John Hurt and Udo Kier are great in comic relief roles that, in hindsight, are dangerously out of place in a stone cold serious film about depression and the end of the world, particularly since Claire's half of the film features nothing close to it, so there's no consistent levity throughout.

I think the opening sequence is an absolute marvel, and there's moments of absolute drop dead gorgeous cinematography (and special effects) laced throughout.  Dunst is fantastic and looks incredible wearing one the greatest on-screen wedding dresses of all time.  As an exploration of melancholy, it does better than almost any film before it, but as an end-of-the-world movie it's utterly up its own ass.

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Besides It's A Disaster, I like to think that Melancholia, Seeking a Friend.. and These Final Hours all share the same catastrophe, that they're all stories from the same end of the world scenario (throw Last Night in there as well).  There's no real reason they couldn't be save for the miniscule differences in the descriptions of what's happened.  When films are this dark, you need to find your own fun sometimes...