Blue Ruin (2013)

Context is king. Most filmmakers inherently understand that what we know of characters and events will influence our interaction with a film. A piece of knowledge might change a thematic interpretation or it might influence our empathy for a given choice. Many find withholding context until the very end is a good tactic to force dramatic reevaluation. The under-appreciated risk here is that without that context, sometimes decisions seem poorly founded or take on more problematic ethical tones that shape one’s sentiments toward a film that late reversals cannot change.

In Blue Ruin, we learn early on that Dwight (Macon Blair) has lost people and the one responsible is being released from jail, though it is over 20 minutes before it is made clear exactly who was killed, and a full hour before the circumstances of that act are revealed. The curious thing about the way the film withholds this information is it doesn’t use it as startling revelation (though there is a different piece of information that qualifies). And so it does occasionally strain one’s patience, seeing certain responses and wanting to know why extralegal approaches are seen as necessary on both sides of this feud.

I feel like some of this trend for withholding context is an artistic response to the critical concept that exposition is bad. To directly explain any knowledge is inartful and it isn’t enough to simply find natural ways to say things, but to hold that stuff back until later. It is kind of a tragic sense because one of the film’s most powerful scenes is the reunion between Dwight and his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), one of the few scenes in the film that truly reveals some of the facts of the matter. It is this scene that overcame my initial concerns and largely bought me into the action.

I have to confess to being a hard sell on revenge tales. Especially in Korea, where they predominate, there tends to be a strong cynicism involved, a single mindedness about the task. Blue Ruin succeeds in this genre by making those involved fallible, and at least somewhat hindered by doubt. This makes the tragedy of the genre have more impact than mindless obsession. As either pure revenge film, or twist on the family feud, the ending proves potent, pulling down some of the artifice we use to divide ourselves. Ultimately these moments of craft overcame any annoyance about withheld information.

B

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

On my first viewing of The Day The Earth Stood Still, it seemed pretty straight forward as a pacifist parable. A benevolent visitor arrives to scold humanity for its violent ways. There is definitely still a lot of enjoyment to be had watching Klaatu observe and interact with humans, pretending to be one. And with recent events, it certainly begs the question whether humanity deserves to exist (though one should note that warfare has decreased strongly globally).

In this rewatch, I actually saw a more peculiar interpretation, that of Klaatu’s people not simply as aliens with a lesson to humans, but as Westerners to the rest of the world. This interpretation gains some strength in that ultimately Klaatu threatens extinction if peace fails, exerting great power. While from a realist perspective, it makes sense for other civilizations in the universe to set a policy that prevents warring peoples from developing space travel to go along with it. On the other hand, extermination as a cure for violence doesn’t make a lot of sense from a moral standpoint, much like executing murderers. It seems a bit excessive, like using an improvised flame-thrower to kill a spider.

Given the tone of the film, if you do buy that the film is talking about Western powers vis a vis rising powers, it is a film that favors these Western powers. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It strikes me as the kind of two-tiered international law that lets the likes of the US have nuclear weapons, but considers it possible grounds for war if another country tries to develop such weapons. It strikes me as extremely hypocritical, and rather problematic, to approach developing countries in this way, no matter how unstable they are. The downside of this new interpretation is that it is one I don’t agree with like the more basic original one.

B+

Bonus content based on questions asked in response to this review:

Also what do you think of the religious interpretation? That Klaatu is a Christ figure and that the alien powers he threatens with is judgment day?

A lot of atheists I know would find the idea of Christ coming to Earth and saying “I want to talk to your scientists” in order to save the world from apocalypse fairly humorous and ironic. That scientist was apparently a highly regarded profession in the 50s, that would have massive social sway, makes me a bit sad for the present that this feels super far from the case. Expert is a dirty word now. But I’m perfectly comfortable with that interpretation, it just isn’t one that I tend to as a non-theist.

Morally, however, isn’t it the same, whether it is a pacifist alien race who threatens extinction or a Western power? Isn’t the problem inherent in the film?

You are right though, there is no moral difference whether one views it in its textual sci-fi context or convert it to a purely earthly metaphor. The only real difference is as aliens it is easier to imply a sense of omnipotence (which flows into the religious interpretation), especially as they outsource the actual destruction to impartial robots (though that is a laugh, a robot is only as impartial as the programmer). If you think of it as Western powers versus the developing world, it becomes a purely human affair, with all the corruptions of humanity and one sees it as a much less benevolent power.

Juno (2007)

I recently really liked Obvious Child, a film that has been championed by feminists for its casual portrayal of abortion. Contrary to that, however, I was always really uncomfortable with the feminist objections to Juno because she chooses not to get an abortion. I feel like pro-choice circles are so busy fighting for one part of the choice, that they don’t always respect that one of those choices is to not get an abortion, even if it might “make sense” for Juno. The film notably makes no moral stance against abortion. Juno, her friend Leah, and her step-mother Brenda all take that as the instinctual response, normative, not taboo, and the father, Bleeker, is largely indifferent to Juno’s announcement that she was planning to seek an abortion. That she opts against, for the perhaps not entirely rational thought about the baby having fingernails, the film doesn’t say that ergo the fetus is properly human and that any other decision would be immoral, it is simply showing how one individual came to the decision to carry to term.

And aside from what should be seen as a stridently pro-choice film, this is such a feminist feat otherwise because it calls attention to a culture that does at times tell women that abortion is immoral, but at the same time judges young (or unmarried) women harshly who do carry a child to term. Only slightly less scorned would be a woman who more effectively uses birth control, and if she went and abstained, she’d be a prude. The film doesn’t cover all these bases, but it organically constructs its characters out of this no-win paradox of female sexuality.

Aside from Diablo Cody’s punchy and hilarious script (only a few times getting too adventurous with colloquialism), the real reason I can keep coming back to this film is just how well it constructs all the characters (except perhaps Bleeker, though I feel my issues there are somewhat Cera fatigue). Juno is an interesting and complex, both precocious but also naive as befits her age. Radiating from her we get all these fantastic relationships. There is that rock-solid father-daughter bond, the interesting step-mother relationship that has some of the traditional combativeness that is played up in fairy tales, but when it comes to it there is a real love there that shines through. The fated association with Mark is all too believable, and while Juno doesn’t ultimately interact that much with Vanessa, there is enough given to each that you understand their bond as well. Vanessa ultimately is the foil that gives the film its bittersweet punch, a symbol for the cruel randomness of life that she cannot attain with intent what Juno comes to haplessly.

This isn’t a film that I discover new layers to each time but what is there just works so well. It is a bit like Lars and the Real Girl. It just feels like a warm blanket, a reminder of the value of surrounding yourself with people who love you because that is the community that will get you through unexpected and/or rocky experiences. That is something I can always use reminding of.

A+

Under The Skin (2013)

A lot of reviews I read or listened to described this as a very interesting film. A woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives about Scotland, luring men to a sticky end. It does provide a turn-about of the male predatory gaze. However, beyond this basic aspect, this isn’t an interesting film. Aside from some stunning visuals, the film does very little. It is one of those largely opaque films that film critics often adore because it allows them to attach whatever meaning they want to it because they can’t be wrong. Some trumpet this ambiguity as a virtue, treat it as more artistic. This seems a bit too post-modern for me, and why I tend not to engage in the more inert arts like painting and sculpture. But I guess for some simply being evocative, providing the impetus for thought, is sufficient.

I feel like artistry comes in expression and conveyance of ideas, not in forcing the viewer to do the creation. Because how can we talk about a work of art as a community if the themes are that individualized? To the degree that this film has any of its own ideas, they probably aren’t sufficient to fill more than a short film, and the whole thing feels well stretched nearing two hours. One of the greater disappointments of the year.

D+

Nymphomaniac (2013)

As someone who saw the feminist message embedded within the bleak and punishing experience of Antichrist, a film many others saw as misogynist, perhaps it was inevitable that I would be open to similar progressive interpretations with Lars von Trier’s potentially even more button-pushing epic Nymphomaniac. The film opens on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) beaten and abandoned in an alley, discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Aside from just being a helpful stranger, he actually ends up playing the role of therapist as Joe recounts her life of sexual deviance.

While the roots of Joe’s self-loathing are undoubtedly patriarchal, it is interesting that she is the one who insists on her own sinfulness while Seligman consistently acts to reframe things in more positive or at least neutral terms. Joe unveils a sequence of approaches to female sexuality, the deflowering, as sport, etc. Seligman tends to have some form of natural metaphor…Fibonacci sequences and fishing. Joe’s view is socially constructed, coming with moral baggage while Seligman’s is natural and amoral. It isn’t concerned with good or bad, it just is.

If these are the film’s strengths, its weakness comes in its scope and the inconsistency of the script. One sequence, placing Joe as unintended homewrecker, has a truly off-key turn from the spurned wife. I get that the scene isn’t meant to be realistic, but placing all the possible subtext or tacit messages smack into the text it not only feels unreal but forced. I get where this all enters into the film’s point but just for quality it seems a ripe place for cutting that might have allowed this to avoid splitting. There are other scenes that stand out not so much for lacking quality but for lacking strong relevance to the main thrust of the film. These are long ventures without enough payoff and I start to doubt I have a grasp of what I’m supposed to get from this at all. So ends Volume 1 and the artificial break ensues.

The potency of Seligman’s philosophical analogies that were the strength early on kind of faded away, but the increased presence of Gainsbourg, as Joe ages, proved beneficial. There was a certain joy in watching Joe’s adventure to rediscover sexual pleasure. The film dares us to judge her as deviant and sinful, but what we get is consent-based exploration. It is a rejection of rigidly enforced “vanilla” sexuality, we see this in a different light as Joe uses a particular strategy for finding people’s secrets in order to extort money…everyone, women included, has a diverse and unique sexuality. Not all of it can be realized (that consent thing). The response to this continues the theme of consent in the second half in a pretty touching way. This point is sealed with emphasis in an ending that feels a tad out of place, but says so much.

I should say that the second half certainly had its share of dragging moments. I think this could have been cut down to a three hour movie that might not have needed arbitrary splitting. On the other hand, the first half and second half do take slightly different tones of emphasis. There are a lot of things I like that the film is getting at but it just feels a bit let down on the organizational side. I feel like there is a spectacular film to be found in the ideas here but von Trier got self-indulgent and didn’t maximize his opportunity, which is a shame because this had the chance to be something important.

B

Snowpiercer (2014)

I suppose it is irrational to be disappointed that a film from a Korean director turned out a bit too Korean for my tastes. As someone who has been disappointed by Bong Joon Ho’s films thus far, maybe I needed a bit more caution in forming high expectations. But the premise, with inherent comment on global warming and economic inequality seemed too good to fail.

In a broad sense, I loved the film’s setting. The art direction recalled greats like Gilliam and Jeunet. However, red flags went up about the potency of the economic satire with the introduction of Tilda Swinton’s atrocious character, making a speech that proved this film had nothing relevant to say.

Instead, it quickly became clear that the film was more in love with the violence and (class) vengeance than the cause. This dark cynicism is a feature common to Korean cinema that has largely kept me away and I wasn’t expecting how present it would be here. Ultimately I stopped caring.

The films brightest moment for e came at a sushi bar. In this case the two presumptive themes usefully came together to indict a certain bourgeois activism that pleases the well to do but really is unworkable for the poor. It is a reason it is hard for developing countries to limit themselves in a way the developed ones never had to. The worst moment was the reveal on the food source, as it treats with kneejerk revulsion something that is arguably humanity’s best answer to balancing nutritional and environmental needs.

I won’t say there isn’t a pretty strong production quality here, but it is mostly soulless and lacking in real ideas.

C

Obvious Child (2014)

I have previously said that the problem with the feminist ideal of movies and TV that include unintended pregnancies that end with completely uncomplicated abortions is that it is dramatically inert. Drama is based on tension and conflict, so having an internal struggle on whether or not to have an abortion, having complications in getting an abortion, or facing regrets afterward are all much richer sources of drama than knowing for sure that it is the right choice, having it go smoothly, and having no regrets. If this is a fundamental reason that this kind of plot point is underrepresented in drama, it need not keep it from being seen in comedy. An early episode of Girls structures quite a bit of comedy around a casual abortion (one that is ultimately unnecessary) and it works quite well.

Obvious Child has been hailed in feminist film circles for offering such an approach (though I did hear one critic knocking it slightly for the exact lack of dramatic tension that I discussed above), but like Girls, it does so largely in the context of comedy. Donna (Jenny Slate), is a stand-up comedian who, in the midst of a depressive spell after being cheated on and dumped (what’s the point of being cheated on if you don’t even get to dump him for it), has a drunken hook-up and gets pregnant.

The beauty of Obvious Child is that while it makes the decision to get an abortion uncontested, it adds the nuance or complexity by having us see Donna dealing with not the decision, but how she must present that decision to others (if at all). Even though abortion is a hot-button political issue and the last few years have seen a surge in restrictions that have truly made it harder to get one, an abortion is a wildly common procedure. A third of all women will have an abortion in their lifetime, yet it is a major taboo, something that society implies you must bury shamefully. So through Donna’s eyes we get insight from other women around her who share their stories and make her feel less alone.

Right now it seems Melissa McCarthy is the most prominent comedic actress, but I’ve felt she has played way too much to an over the top character that gains extra problematic shades as it can reinforce certain stereotypes about weight. Slate, fitting conventional standards of beauty, doesn’t have that particular concern, but I appreciate that she mostly avoids going in that big direction. There is one particular scene where she does lose it, and I cringed a little (which is partly intended, but I didn’t laugh, as I don’t like cringe humor), but the bulk was a much more natural comedy. Gaby Hoffmann, playing Nellie, Donna’s roommate/friend, continues her amazing return to acting. I also feel like the film deserves a lot of credit for how it builds the primary love interest Max (Jake Lacy). He may shade a bit toward a male version of manic pixie dream girl, but he definitely has a few more layers than that type of character often has in a romantic comedy.

Even if the treatment of the subject of abortion feels groundbreaking to many, this film wears it without seeming burdened because it gives every impression of being anything but revolutionary. It seems comfortable passing itself off as a charming little romantic comedy, and perhaps abortion shouldn’t be something that gets in the way of that, it certainly charmed me.

B+

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