Obvious Child

No snips

obviousOn a day that sees women being once again failed by our supreme court, there may be some solace in Obvious Child, a film written, directed, produced by, and starring women, and it’s a film that involves one woman’s choice to obtain an abortion, a simple procedure that women are still fighting to have recognized as a part of basic health care.  But screenwriter/director Gillian Robespierre does not present this as a big-issue film; she instead gives us a romantic comedy starring a character who refuses to be in one.

Donna Stern (the hilarious Jenny Slate) is a Brooklyn comedian who, immediately following a great set, is dumped and laid off within twenty-four hours.  Following a casual hookup with nice-guy Max (Jake Lacy), Donna becomes pregnant, though she doesn’t realize it for a few weeks.  She decides to get an abortion, but she has to wait for it, so she has plenty of time to let everyone know (other than the guy she had sex with, who disappears for awhile, then reemerges determined to take her on a “proper date”).  Donna’s roommate, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) supports the decision, having had an abortion herself.  Donna is confident about having the procedure, but worries about telling her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper), who looks down upon Donna’s relative destitution, and often accuses her of wasting her life.  But it turns out that Nancy had an abortion when she was in college, and can vouch that this is most certainly not a bad or irresponsible decision.

The film portrays Donna as the typical grubby and lovable lead in any gender of rom-com, but Obvious Child isn’t precious about it.  In a film like A Life Less Ordinary, which starts similarly – Ewan McGregor is dumped and fired from his job in the same day, leading to a much different decision than Slate’s character makes here – the lead character is severely misunderstood at every corner, a handsome and well-intentioned guy who is recognizably perfect to everyone watching the movie, who cannot believe that he could be treated this way by the woman he loves.  Robespierre takes more of a risk.  She allows Donna to be herself, which means that some audiences might not like Donna very much.  The result is a more layered character.  Donna is unapologetically herself, and she makes no secret about what you’re in for if you choose to spend time with her – the film’s opening dialogue is one of many extended vagina jokes, and while it’s great gross-out stuff, it’s refreshing to hear female comedians let loose and be funny about their own bodies in a genre so dominated by shopworn dick jokes.

Perhaps best of all, despite the film’s identity in the media as the first mainstream “abortion movie,” it’s actually not so much a movie about abortion as it is a story that involves an interesting character deciding to get one.  None of the characters who have had abortions in the past regret it or let it consume them in any way, and Donna does not spend the film worrying about whether she’ll regret it, or whether it’s the “right” decision in the eyes of anyone but herself and her mother, and her concern about the latter has nothing to do with religion or unfounded fear that the clump of cells inside her is a person.  In fact, the film is careful to avoid bringing politics or religious hokum into any conversations, aside from Nellie’s brief diatribe about the patriarchal right attempting to assert control over women’s bodies, which is not only on point, but is something the character would say, and this is, again, where the film succeeds: its unabashed decision to let the characters be themselves.  Donna gets an abortion because an abortion is a good decision for Donna, not because it agrees with the politics of a studio or a distributor (I might argue that allowing women basic control over their bodies shouldn’t be an issue of “politics” at all, but alas, this is where we live now).

Not only does the film actually use the word “abortion” (something not even Ernest Hemingway, who freely threw around the N-word, would do),  it dramatizes some of the specifics of the procedure itself – Nellie lets Donna know that it’s painless, takes only a few minutes, and involves no cutting or snipping, despite the fear-mongering of those who demonize abortion as a violent act.  This information is for Donna, but also, by extension, for the audience, who at this point are not hung up on whether the abortion is “correct” (there’s never a doubt about whether it is), but more on whether Donna is going to accept Max’s rather sweet advances, have a successful comedy career, and ditch Spiteful Sleaze Sam (David Cross).  Because Obvious Child is about Donna, not about abortion, even while advocating a woman’s choice to obtain one, whereas films like Juno and Knocked Up, however lovable and hip their protagonists may be, allow the fetus to become the main character, and force the woman to carry the unwanted pregnancy to term because that must somehow be construed as the “happy ending.”  Not here.  Not in stories about characters who want real things.

Obvious Child (2014); written and directed by Gillian Robespierre; starring Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, and Jake Lacy. 

 

 

 

Edge of Tomorrow

All you need is [to] kill [your script]

bluntedgeIs it still a ripoff of Source Code if it’s based on a Japanese light novel?  I’ll leave that to experts on things that don’t matter.  What Edge of Tomorrow does well is the blending of self-conscious humor into a run-of-the-mill doom/gloom alien invasion movie, complete with the characters becoming exhausted at the very mechanics of the sci-fi world they inhabit.  What’s exhausting to the audience, however, is its way of simply taking names of things from a book with a rich background, then providing none of that background, centering on two protagonists who should be starring in their own very different movies, and balling it all up with generic American military values and expecting everyone to care.  When Bill Paxton’s jokey, mustachioed Sergeant Farell character pontificates that “battle is the great redeemer” for the hundredth time, I start to suspect that the filmmakers and I have different thoughts on what constitutes parody.

An alien race known as Mimics (a name never explained in the film) are taking over Europe, and an incredibly badass soldier named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), has had recent success in battling them.  Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is ordered by British General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to cover Operation Downfall, supposedly the humans’ endgame against the Mimics, on the beaches of France, to which Cage declines, citing no real combat experience.  Brigham, however, has Cage railroaded, and he awakens on an operating base at Heathrow Airport.  There, he is pressed into service with “J Squad,” a group of rejects that makes egregious use of the No Girls Allowed Clause.  He’s introduced as a deserter, and J Squad plans to make him their resident redshirt.  However, once the assault begins, it becomes apparent that the Mimics knew about the attack, and the entire force is decimated, including Cage after he attacks an abnormal “Alpha Mimic.”  But the movie can’t end after twenty minutes.  Cage wakes up back at Heathrow, and the day repeats exactly the same way.  We start to think maybe we should have paid attention to little things that happened the first time around.

From here, the film takes on the structure of a video game, from the constant “respawning” whenever Cage dies, to the “leveling up” he must do while learning to operate his futuristic mobile suit.  On the second loop, the version of Rita on the battlefield instructs Cage to “Find [her] when [he] wakes up,” and the next time the day begins, he approaches Rita herself, something everyone else knows better than to attempt.  But she knows exactly what’s happening to Cage, because up until recently, it was happening to her.  She and brainiac Carter (Noah Taylor) have spent plenty of time studying the Mimics, and have learned that the aliens obey the Omega Mimic, a gigantic Charybdis-like creature that hides underwater and has the power to restart the day whenever it wants to, explaining how the Mimics just happen to have the jump on the humans every time.  Due to the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence that governs most movies like this, the Omega has inadvertently passed this power on to Rita and Cage, and is hunting for them.

You know the plot from here.  The heroes figure out how to defeat the aliens, the plan doesn’t go exactly right, Cage loses the gift at a critical moment, and they improvise a solution.  There are predictably sweet/funny/gooey moments in between.  The only thing setting Edge apart from anything else Tom Cruise has done is characterization: at the outset, the female character is the renowned warrior, and Cruise’s character is a coward and a greenhorn.  A great start, but the film’s issues lie within that very characterization.

If this were a movie about a respected female warrior guiding a reluctant male sidekick along, that would be admirable, especially for a pre-summer blockbuster.  However, Cage is the main character, and Rita is not so much the star of her own story as she is an exotic creature whose job is to move Cage through the motions until he learns to become the hero (and thus achieve the male wish fulfillment that catalyzes virtually every single dude-centric action movie ever made).  On top of that, she’s the only female character in the movie (aside from Nance, a member of J-Squad, played by Charlotte Riley with an enormous hole in her sock).  She’s known in the military as the “Angel of Verdun” and the “Full Metal Bitch,” both gender-centric nicknames, neither of which are very complimentary.  And even her heroics at Verdun are essentially taken away from her upon the revelation that the Mimics have simply allowed the human military their biggest victories so that they’ll let their guard down in France.  Perhaps the most unsettling moment is one wherein Cage and Rita are stuck in an abandoned house, planning their next move.  Cage somehow knows how many sugars Rita takes in her coffee and that there is a dry shirt nearby in her exact size.  Rita gradually realizes that this means they’ve not only lived this day countless times, but that on at least one occasion, things became intimate, and she has no memory of it, while Cage does, and discusses it rather casually.  Maybe it’s supposed to be romantic, but it’s uncomfortable, and may be one of the more bizarre ways female characters have been stripped of agency on film this year.  That leads me to a question: if you had sex with someone, and you don’t remember it happening (not even the circumstances under which it happened, and even whether you consented), but the other person remembers everything, where does the situation fall as far as agency?

It’s a shame, because Emily Blunt is an actress who thrives at playing layered characters, and deserves more than one extreme or the other (or, in this case, as with Looper, one extreme and the other, which is also nonsense).  As a whole, Edge of Tomorrow is relatively harmless, but is full of missed opportunities, and tastes particularly sour when one considers all of the fascinating elements of the novel that go unexplored in favor of reliable formula.  O, what could have been.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014); based on the light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka; written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by Doug Liman; starring Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise.

 

 

 

Locke

This isn’t your home any more

lockeThe parameters of the 80-minute car ride that is Locke pretty much set themselves: once we get in the car, we cannot get out.  Once we are allowed out of the car, the movie ends.  Sort of like – y’know – a long-ass car ride.

The film, which centers on one character and relies entirely upon an excruciatingly-crafted plot, follows Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy doing an upper-class Welsh accent) as he drives from Birmingham to London in order to be with a certain woman while she gives birth.  Simple enough circumstances, but the conflicts pile up as we, the audience, watch Ivan placate countless people and keep the utter destruction of his life at bay via Bluetooth.  The woman giving birth, Bethan (Olivia Colman) is not Ivan’s wife.  He had a one-night stand with her seven months ago while away from his family, who know nothing about it (yet).  Moreover, he’s supposed to be rushing home from work to watch an important football (soccer) match with his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and kids.  What’s arguably worse: Ivan is a highly revered construction foreman, and is expected to oversee one of the most monumental concrete pours in the history of England the following morning – an event he will not be present for if he’s in London.

For many of us, this doesn’t sound too bad.  A lie here or there and the whole thing blows over.  But of course, Ivan, for reasons that are slowly peeled away during the few-and-far-between scenes when he’s truly alone, has decided to be completely honest with absolutely everyone tonight.  His boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels) – whose name is saved in Ivan’s Bluetooth address book as “Bastard” (really the only atom of humor in the entire film, and a damn refreshing running gag) – throws the fit you’d expect when Ivan gives him the news that he will not be coming in for the most important workday in his career.  Gareth knows that when he lets the true heads of the company (inexplicably located in Chicago) know this, Ivan will be fired, and he makes no secret about it to Ivan, even asking why Ivan didn’t lie and say he was sick, which would have been a valid excuse.  Things go as Gareth promises, and a call a few minutes later reveals that Ivan no longer has a job to return to, even though Gareth mentioned to Chicago that Ivan has served the company loyally for twelve years.  “Eleven years,” Ivan corrects him.  The honesty is painful.

But the bit of honesty that makes us cringe most of all is Ivan’s call to Katrina, explaining why exactly he will not be home tonight.  Katrina spends most of her in-between time considering whether to kick Ivan out of the house for his infidelity (and the fact that he kept this a secret for seven months), though of course we never see her, or anyone else but Ivan.  Bethan has her own problems in the hospital, at which you can guess, and about which Ivan spends as much time worrying as he does about the pour or his family.

Ivan’s journey over the spiraling English highways isn’t just a descent from one piece of terrible news to another, however.  Ivan still has a goal: he will successfully prepare the concrete pour over the phone despite the fact that he is no longer in charge of it.  He refers to the mammoth building that will soon be built as “my building,” and guides his former underling, Irishman Donal (Andrew Scott), whose predicament is somehow amplified when we cannot actually see his face, through the grueling preparations.

Locke is not a story with only one character, but it’s a film wherein only one actor’s face is seen, and the whole thing takes place on a single claustrophobic set.  Tom Hardy must carry the entire movie, and he does.  Whether his character is sympathetic is subjective, and doesn’t quite matter because his three major conflicts are so different, but his decision to play things Lawful Good seems like an attempt on director Steven Knight’s part to nudge the audience in the sympathy direction.  We want all of this to work out for Ivan, both as a film audience and as witnesses to the serious pain of several people, but as both of those things, we’d also feel cheated if everything did work out for him.

There are a couple of characterizations that don’t quite sit well: Katrina’s incredulity befits any stereotypical Wife to a Bearded Movie Hero, whether or not her final decision is understandable, and Donal, the film’s only Irishman, drinks heavily through almost the entire story (and gets more than a little feisty when you hassle him about it).  Missteps like this can’t be overlooked in such a tight film because they’re more glaring than they would be anywhere else.  Here, they remind us that everything and everyone outside of Ivan’s car are pieces that must fit into exact place at exact times, over and over, ad (almost) infinitum.

One-man and one-woman shows are all over the place, and the conventions of film, small-cinema and otherwise, are being reinvented on a yearly basis (check out last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color), so I don’t need to sell you Locke by calling it ambitious.  But it is.  In a world where the CG grows more ludicrous, advertisements for 3D movies won’t go away, and the explosions and giant robots only get bigger, Locke is unabashedly small, a deliberate implosion of all that big noise.

Locke (2014); written and directed by Steven Knight; starring Tom Hardy.