I Origins

Pyrrhic Evolution

originsFor once in a film, it would be nice if the cynical pragmatist turned out to be correct.  But a facsimile of real life does not fantastical escapism make, so the resolution of Mike Cahill’s I Origins is about as close as we’re going to get.  Cahill is the director of Another Earth, one of 2011’s best films, and his mission to be “stricter” with himself leads to a film that satisfies three conditions for a spiritual sequel: another collaboration with writer/actress Brit Marling, another film with huge ideas about science and spirituality, and another story that is more about honestly exploring the self than finding answers that make everyone happy.

Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a frumpy grad student researching the evolution of the human eye.  His surface goal is to discredit creationists who believe that the eye is so complex that it must have been intelligently designed, but his obsession goes much deeper than that (plus the creationists’ argument is not really an argument – it’s conjecture based upon personal limitation, which makes it a bit sad that Gray takes it so seriously).  Part of his fascination with the eye involves photographing the irises of strangers, which no one seems to have a problem with, least of all Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mystery woman he meets at a Halloween party.  She’s dressed in a black mask that makes her unrecognizable, but there’s an unmistakable connection between her and Gray, who spends some time tracking her down, which involves breaking his cardinal rule of not believing in “signs.”  The number eleven keeps popping up after he buys a lottery ticket (the New York Lotto slogan, “Hey, you never know,” is deliberately framed center-screen as Gray ponders the coincidence), and his trail ends at a billboard hawking cosmetics.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that the eye-model on the billboard is Sofi, gazing out over the city like TJ Eckleburg.

The film is split into two very distinct halves with a seven-year gap.  The first half involves Gray’s blooming romance with Sofi, whom he finally encounters again on a bus, and despite her better judgement, begins a relationship with him.  On the other hand, Gray is forced to “babysit” a first-year student named Karen (Brit Marling), who immediately combats Gray’s unfounded passive-aggression by showcasing her scientific prowess: the key to what Gray is looking for, she says, is to find a sightless animal that has the DNA required to actually develop an eye.  She narrows it down to about 400,000 animals, and goes to work with nary a qualm.  Kenny (Steven Yeun), Gray’s other lab partner, is developing a database that will allow everyone to be identified by their unique iris patterns.  As breakthroughs are made, Gray and Sofi prepare to marry.  Here’s the problem: Gray and Sofi are fundamental opposites.  Gray is a rigid scientist, and Sofi is a spiritualist who believes in miracles and keeps assorted gewgaws around her apartment.  In nearly every scene, they argue.  This clash of science and faith comes to a head when Karen finally discovers a species of blind worm with the DNA they’ve been looking for, and Sofi visits Gray’s lab for the first time.  Sofi dismisses Gray’s research as “torturing worms” and says he’s playing god.  She asserts that if blind worms go about their lives without the knowledge that sight exists, yet humans know sight is real, then it’s perfectly possible that there’s another level of existence that humans are completely unaware of (again, this is presented as a real argument, but it’s conjecture – there’s proof of one of those things, Sofi!  Your argument isn’t actually based on anything!).  This presents the question of why these two would continue a serious relationship.  Is it the stubborn thought (on both of their parts) that one of them will eventually “win”?  As Gray realizes in retrospect, this was never meant to be – y’know, not that he believes in that.

The film’s most central conflict, or leastways Gray’s most central personal crisis, grows out of something that every trailer spoils because no one knows how to market a slow-burn drama about characters: Sofi’s death, which happens about halfway through.  A devastated Gray briefly loses focus, but the unfortunate truth (not spoken in the film, but sadly obvious) is that Sofi’s absence is convenient: no one to berate him for being pragmatic, no one to take up space in the lab, and most importantly, no one to get in the way of the will they/won’t they between Gray and Karen any longer.

But there’s a reason for how long this takes.  If the film had begun with Sofi’s death, she and Gray having been in a relationship established before the narrative entry point, the rest of the story would not be as effective.  Because of the pacing, Gray is sympathetic even when his decisions are rash.  We liked Sofi.  We want to know that this was all worth it.  Seven years later, Gray and Karen are married with a toddler, Gray has published a controversial book on his research, and Sofi exists only in the digital folders of his laptop.  Kenny’s iris database has become a universally accepted system.  But when the couple visits Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who wants to test the baby for autism, they quickly realize that this test is for something else.  Come to find out, the iris database read their son’s irises as matching those of a recently deceased man, which should be statistically impossible, considering that every person is supposed to have unique iris patterns.  Finally, an even more profound discovery is made: a young girl at an orphanage in Delhi, born shortly after Sofi’s death, has Sofi’s eyes.  Karen, ever the calm and sensible one, encourages Gray to go to India and figure this out, as it could be important to the scientific community, along with helping Gray move on.  With the help of Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi) and a very expensive billboard, he finds the little girl, Salomina (Kashish, a real-life Delhi orphan and the most wonderfully natural child actress I’ve seen in years) gazing up at Sofi’s eyes, her own eyes, just as Gray did at the beginning of all this.

I Origins could have gone on for another hour, considering its scope and its natural pacing.  But it’s a story about a character, about discovery, and about abandoning rigidity in favor of open-mindedness (as Gray puts it, science is always evolving, while religious beliefs are unbending, and we get the feeling that Gray forgets this before his trip to India).  Criticism will come from the fact that the film doesn’t present a “correct” or definitive answer as to the nature of the duplicate eyes, but let’s not forget that the film never promises to, nor is it about that (just as Another Earth was not about where Earth 2 came from or what would eventually be found there).  The protagonist’s name, for crying out loud, says it all: Gray area.  Nothing absolute.  Species evolve.  Theories change.  People and ideas can grow.  The door Gray walks through in Cahill’s masterful-as-usual final shot, while reflecting Sofi’s earlier allegory about not being afraid to enter the “other side,” does not mean he’s accepted anything spiritual, nor does it constitute proof of intelligent design – it illustrates the change that Gray himself has always argued for.  Something in the natural world has changed, or is preparing to.

The film isn’t without its characterization flaws.  Gray sometimes speaks the movie’s themes, which we can chalk up to the fact that he’s mostly drunk or worked up when he does, but it still stands out and serves a deliberate purpose.  Sofi’s death – she is implicitly disemboweled by an unseen sharp object when Gray attempts to pull her out of a teetering elevator – is bizarre, unscientific, and awkwardly shot.  If Cahill needed her to die instantly in an elevator accident, the threatening-to-fall elevator could have just fallen, couldn’t it?

The two main women in the film, Karen and Sofi, are such polar opposites (Karen = science, pragmatism, practicality, all the way down to the way she dresses; Sofi = leather jackets, whimsicality, Manic-Pixie-ism) that they almost feel ripped from a Christopher Nolan film, and instead of allowing them to be real people on their own merits, their personalities function to “teach” the male protagonist things that will help him in the story.  It’s a real issue in media, defining women by men, and perhaps Cahill’s somewhat ironic claim that he wanted to be more rigid in making this film resulted in the adoption of such conventions.  On top of that, Karen, the smartest and most driven character in the piece, is relegated to stay-at-home-mom status even after Gray publishes a book and appears on TV talking about ideas that were mostly rooted in Karen’s research.  Given her character, it’s almost insulting that Karen does not call attention to any of this, but maybe it’s Brit Marling’s performance that makes a character seem like she has more layers than are really written beneath (a big problem when a film wants to have powerful women in supporting roles, yet the plot relies on what the man does – not impossible to reconcile in the hands of a competent writer).

At one point, Gray runs into a traveling preacher (William Mapother in a cameo), who becomes a plot device that catalyzes the ending.  Gray and Karen run tests on Salomina to see if she is Sofi, but no, that would be ridiculous.  Gray moves to return Salomina to Priya, who will soon pull up in a taxi, and decides to take the elevator, which he avoided earlier after seeing the obnoxious preacher waiting for it, in favor of taking the stairs.  When the elevator opens, Salomina freaks out at the sight of it.  The brilliant part of this revelation (whether Cahill himself or commentators realize it) is that this goes two ways: our instinct is to believe that Sofi would be afraid of elevators were she reincarnated.  But a young, homeless orphan like Salomina has probably never seen an elevator, and it’s perfectly understandable that she’d be afraid of such a machine.  The idea, most likely, is that eyes are connected to neural receptors, which means that if you have someone’s eyes, you have some of their personality as well.  In the world of I Origins, whether this is an amazing scientific discovery or Sofi’s version of the spiritual “other side” may be something you’ll have to let your own biases decide.  One important bit to consider, however: when Gray is looking into Salomina’s face at the end, does he remember that conversation seven years earlier, wherein Sofi made clear that she never wants to be reincarnated?

Regardless, nothing excuses making a film with the intention of “sparking a conversation” if the filmmaker doesn’t know exactly what that conversation is.  And your crazy neighbor who thinks her deceased husband was reincarnated as her cat still isn’t on to something.

I Origins (2014); written and directed by Mike Cahill; starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Archie Panjabi. 

The East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

2012 Favorites

We now return you to 2013, already in progress

feature_presentationI keep hearing myself say, “I told you the best movies from 2011 were Take Shelter, Another Earth, and Jane Eyre.”  In part so that I can cite the fact that I “told you,” and mostly just because I’ve been wanting to for awhile, I will now hold the Richard Lives equivalent of the Oscars once annually (called “Favorites” because I don’t presume to be any more of an authority on the subject than I seem to be [not to say I don’t make better decisions than the Academy, but I digress]) .  The rules I set for myself are as follows:

I.  Only include movies that I’ve seen/written about here.

II.  Set early February as a deadline.  Do it during awards season.  As such, I won’t have seen every movie of the year, in large part because of my location (for example, I am doing this list before having seen Rust and Bone, as I may not get to it anytime soon.  Apologies to Marion Cotillard, who surely doesn’t need my approval).

III.  Only include movies from the year in question.  Sometimes I see films from the previous year that I never got around to and write about them if I need to, so you’ll see them mixed in with the new movies.  Look at the year of release, listed at the bottom of each review, if you’re wondering why The Lie isn’t included in this year’s list.

IV.  No more than 5 nominees for each category.  Some have fewer.  Some have only one, such as “Favorite Character,” which we’ll also call the Highlander Award, just for fun.

V.  Be honest.  As much as I may like to be seen disagreeing with the Academy, Les Mis was pretty damn good.

I’ll explain the categories as we go, if the parameters aren’t obvious.  The “Body of Work” actor and actress awards refer to actors who had the most prolific year (varied roles, great performances).  2011’s winner was, of course, Jessica Chastain, with seven major roles and no equal in performance and character assortment.

Some categories have several nominees.  Some don’t.  Categories with multiple nominees may have a star (*) next to one, indicating my personal favorite of the year’s best.  However, since the nominees aren’t actually receiving anything from me (positive encouragement notwithstanding) and considering the fact that many of these roles/films are really not comparable (for instance, how do you compare Hugh Jackman’s performance with Woody Harrelson’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and then decide which is somehow “best”?  “Best” according to what characteristics shared by all three?), you may consider all nominees equal winners if I’ve chosen not to “star” anything.  Click the links (movie titles) to see my original reviews.

Without further ado:

Best Pictures

Safety Not Guaranteed             

A Late Quartet                        

Moonrise Kingdom

Les Misérables

Zero Dark Thirty

Best screenwriting

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained 

Derek Connolly – Safety Not Guaranteed     

Martin McDonaghSeven Psychopaths    

James Ellroy/Oren Moverman – Rampart

Brit MarlingSound of My Voice 

Favorite character

Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Best Actress (single performance)

Jessica Chastain as Maya – Zero Dark Thirty*

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Juno Temple as LilyLittle Birds  

Jennifer Lawrence as TiffanySilver Linings Playbook 

Sarah Hayward as SuzieMoonrise Kingdom 

Best Actress (body of work)

Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor (single performance)

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown – Rampart*

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnLincoln

Michael Fassbender as DavidPrometheus

Richard Gere as Robert MillerArbitrage

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert – A Late Quartet*

Best actor (body of work)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Best supporting actress

Brie Larson as Helen – Rampart*

Imogen Poots as Alexandra A Late Quartet*

Brit Marling as MaggieSound of My Voice

Diane Kruger as Marie AntoinetteFarewell, My Queen

Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained

Robert De Niro as Patrizio SolitanoSilver Linings Playbook

Ben Whishaw as Robert FrobisherCloud Atlas

Best director

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty*

Oren MovermanRampart

Quentin TarantinoDjango Unchained

                                                                                                                                                   Best book-to-film adaptation

Anna Karenina

Les Misérables*

Silver Linings Playbook       

Dark Horse Favorite

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Biggest letdowns

Skyfall

The Expendables 2

Ruby Sparks
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Most Popular Review

The Moth Diaries

Actors who wrote to me

Lily Cole

Lauren Ashley Carter

———

Thanks for reading.  See you next year.

Sound of My Voice

Why do I like being lame?

Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice wastes no time in presenting a concept, three potentially combustible personalities, and a dozen questions, the most important of which is this: is Maggie telling the truth?  It’s the most important question because if she’s not, the lion’s share of this film’s narrative is for nothing.  This is a problem that generates a compelling motivation, or “viewing style” if you will, for an audience: we’re rooting for the character presented at the outset as a charlatan.  Why?  Partly because she radiates honesty, partly because we don’t really care about the dual protagonists’ motivations, and thirdly because we don’t want any of the characters, even the ones we don’t like, to have wasted their time.

The story places us in the presence of Lorna (Nicole Vicius) and her boyfriend, Peter (Christopher Denham), late-twenties layabouts seeking to make a living in L.A. by doing what everyone who goes to L.A. hopes to make a living doing: making films.  Their film is a documentary about cults, and they’ve somehow come across a group led by a mysterious, white-veiled basement dweller named Maggie (Brit Marling), who claims to have traveled back in time from 2054, where a civil war is tearing the world apart, and she has returned in order to “save” the people she loves.  How will she accomplish this?  We don’t know.  What does her plan have to do with this group of strangers who worship her?  She doesn’t say.  All we know is that Peter and Lorna think of the whole thing as a joke, and are willing to play along with Maggie’s rituals until they can find a way to expose her on film.  They infiltrate the group, pretending to be members, not knowing what they’re getting themselves into.

Of course, as Peter and Lorna attend several months’ worth of group rituals, the things Maggie says begin to make more sense, even to the arrogant and skeptical Peter, who is emotionally gutted by Maggie in one of the film’s most effective dramatic scenes.  “She knew things about you,” Lorna says to him over a meal the next day.  Peter stone-facedly denies this and says he was just making things up, but we know he wasn’t, which presents two solid conflicts: Lorna, after a three-year relationship with Peter, doesn’t know much about him and is jealous that the beautiful and enigmatic Maggie has this effect on him; and Peter, who may have developed a fixation on Maggie similar to that of the other followers (of whom he made a terrible mockery before), hasn’t bothered with his documentary work in weeks.

During the day, Peter teaches at an all-girls elementary school, which he considers sedentary and a waste of his twenties.  The film lends particular focus to a certain student, Abigail (Avery Pohl), an eight year-old who shows symptoms of Asperger’s (indicated by her insistence on never removing her red hat and the fact that she spends the entirety of her free time building with black Lego pieces).  We know she has some connection to Maggie before it’s even revealed, but the trouble that brews is well worth the wait: Maggie, still claiming to be from the future, believes Abigail to be her mother, and “needs” to meet with her.  The guy who can make this happen?  Peter, the one teacher Abigail tolerates.  Peter’s decision whether to do this pops the bubble that has expanded between Lorna and himself throughout the story, and the payoff delivered when Maggie and Abigail finally meet rivals most films from this year – but what do you expect?  Sound of My Voice was co-scripted by Brit Marling, who is absolutely convincing as Maggie, and who wrote the best screenplay of 2011, Another Earth.  Her next film, also in tandem with Batmanglij, is The East, starring Brit alongside Ellen Page.

For better or worse, the film deprives us of the denouement that most films would drag us through.  This works if you don’t mind not having every single question answered – what will the nature of Lorna and Peter’s relationship be in the future?  What do the feds looking for Maggie think she wants the child for?  Can they legally convict her of anything?  The film makes no absolute statements about any of it (exemplified by Peter’s final line: “I don’t know”), but I think we know in our hearts, just as we do when watching election coverage, who’s telling the truth and who is perpetually full of it.

Sound of My Voice (2012); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, and Nicole Vicius.

Arbitrage

Everybody works for me

Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage presents a very clear metaphor: rich people can get away with murder.  The film’s story sees Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a sixty year-old billionaire hedge fund manager not dissimilar to Bernie Madoff, attempting to merge his company via a deal with Mr. Mayfied, a Godot-like character not often seen, but who sends several of his people to Miller’s offices to modify the deal.  However, Miller is involved in a multi-million dollar fraud, having hidden $400 million worth of debt from both his family and the investors.  Miller’s CFO is his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a strong, stable woman who makes a capable business partner.  Miller also shares a seemingly healthy relationship with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who knows her husband has at least one mistress, but accepts this as long as some set of conditions (which we are never quite privy to, but can assume has something to do with maintaining a lavish lifestyle) are met.

The central conflict, however, is not the merger and the fraud, at least not when Miller takes his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta) for a cruise to one of his rural secondary homes.  Julie, an up-and-coming artist whose ventures Miller funds, loves him and wants him to leave Ellen.  He puts off answering, but all of the discussion amounts to nothing when he dozes off in the driver’s seat, resulting in a gruesome car accident that kills Julie and results in an attempt at a massive cover-up.  Miller begins to dial 911, then thinks better of it and makes a collect call to Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a former chauffeur for whom Miller once did personal favors, asking for a ride home and keeping the cause of his (very visible) injuries a secret.

What follows is Miller’s attempt to hide every possible truth from every possible party.  Police Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a bristly lawman with a chip on his shoulder concerning “rich assholes,” is sent to discover the identity of Julie’s absent driver, and knows Miller was the wheelman after a surprise interrogation.  Bryer explores Julie’s apartment, harasses Jimmy (who is pegged as a witness after police trace the call), and even goes as far as photo-shopping a photo of Jimmy’s license plate in order to place his car at a guilt-proving location.  Roth’s character wears a black suit and made me imagine all-too-vividly what might have happened if Mr. Orange, Roth’s black-suited undercover cop from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, had continued with his career and worked another twenty years.  The lines engraving his face and his passive-yet-menacing interrogation style say more than could ever be spoken about this guy’s position in life.

Brit Marling, who scripted and starred in Another Earth, my favorite film from last year, performs strongly here, matching the veterans Gere and Sarandon line for line.  It’s truly an amazing thing to see. I’m fine with a film centering around a male character, but if I have one gripe about the film, it’s the mild underuse of Brit, whose longer scenes are rare chestnuts in a film so full of handsome men doing bad things.

The ingenuity of a thriller like Arbitrage lies in the fact that a filmgoer’s instinct is either to immediately identify with the protagonist, or try to remain completely neutral until one event or another forces them to take a side.  It doesn’t take very long for Miller to reveal himself as a snake, and while no sane person would root for him to get away with either of his schemes, we as an audience are burdened with each of his lies and deceptions until the pressure is unceremoniously relieved in the film’s all-too-true-to-life ending.  No, bastards like Miller never lose.

Arbitrage (2012); written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki; starring Richard Gere, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Susan Sarandon.

Another Earth

Forgive

Sometimes you have to wait to read a book or see a movie, because you need to be in a “certain place” first.  I’m still not sure what place I had to be in to go see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, but having been interested in this fascinating piece of art since its announcement, I waited a good amount of time to get there.  So long, in fact, that I caught the final showing in the entire district, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatre, about five minutes from where I was born.

The story begins with Rhoda Williams (writer and actress Brit Marling), an MIT-bound high school graduate.  At a party, she has too many drinks, and drives home to the sounds of a local hip-hop radio station.  The DJ mentions in passing that a new planet has been discovered, and according to scientists, it’s capable of supporting life.  Tonight, it will appear as a blue spot somewhere close to the moon.  Peering out her window and spotting the blue spot in the sky, Rhoda speeds through an intersection and smashes into an SUV, killing the wife and young child of John Burroughs (William Mapother), whom we later learn is a respected composer and college professor.  He is rendered comatose in the accident.

Four years later, John comes out of his coma and Rhoda is released from prison.  Her family (parents and obnoxious younger brother) pick her up as casually as if they were picking her up from school.  We are spared any of Rhoda’s prison experiences, and no specifics are hinted at, but it’s clear that her drunken accident and jail time have thoroughly recolored her personality.  Once an ambitious, talkative, social young woman, Rhoda now sleeps in the attic, owns nothing, hardly bathes, and doesn’t talk.  The very act of existing seems an unfair burden.  Interactions with her family are awkward.  She sees a job counselor, and after the latter comments on her impressive intellectual aptitude, refuses to do a job that requires thinking or talking to people.  She settles for a maintenance job at a local high school, where she works alongside elderly janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pallana) and barely looks a year older than the students who graffiti the bathrooms.

Content to scrub her days away (a well-achieved analogy for a deeper figurative “cleaning”), Rhoda decides to apologize to John for her mistake.  Discovering him in a house not unlike a pig’s wallow, she loses her nerve and claims she is from a cleaning service.  He “hires” her to fix up his disaster of a home, and through one thing and another, they become friends, with Rhoda never revealing who she is.  According to the rules of narrative (especially in film), she must reveal it eventually, and the scenes leading up to this conversation are unbearably tense.

The new about Earth 2 is always progressing, but wisely kept in the background until it becomes relevant to a choice Rhoda must make.  Astronomers and physicists are brought in to attempt first contact when the planet moves visibly closer to Earth.  After various tries, contact is finally achieved, only to reveal that this planet is an exact mirror of Earth, with all of the same people, who have followed the exact same life paths up to this point.

Here is a film that could have broken the rules of narrative we all accept and expect.  Rhoda’s depressions are spot-on accurate and heartbreaking.  She drags herself through work, punishing herself with a job she’s not suited for.  One night, she wanders out into a field, strips completely naked, and lies down in the snow until she passes out.  She awakens in the hospital with her family, who appear as though they almost prefer she’d died.  The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is her predilection for outer space.  She pays close attention to the news stories (the only reason we get to see/hear them), and when a billionaire entrepreneur holds an essay contest (500 words or less) with a grand prize of traveling to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.  Eventually, a theory comes out stating Earth and Earth 2 were identical in every way until the very moment we made contact.  After that exact moment, lives changed, different decisions could have been made, and all bets are off.  What if the version of Rhoda on Earth 2 didn’t kill John’s family?  What if they’re still alive and she’s an MIT student?

Cahill’s cutting, his use of the handheld camera, and his joint decisions with Marling (co-writer of the script) about what is said and what is shown, are astounding for a film of this age.  We understand the connection between Rhoda and Purdeep even when nothing is said.  They’re both lost souls, punishing themselves for past sins.  They understand each other and speak their own language, and we understand it without having it fed to us.  Their final scene together (after Purdeep has blinded and deafened himself because he can no longer “stand to see himself everywhere”) displays a mastery of visual storytelling thus far unmatched this year.  There are also tiny details which could have been ruined with fat blocks of dialogue – on a few occasions, John offers alcoholic drinks to Rhoda.  She apprehensively lets the liquid touch her lips, but never really drinks it.  She never says to John (and by extension, the audience), “I don’t drink because [insert lie for strained tension].”  We know why.  The tension is increased tenfold because she does this without John even noticing.  Despite the temptation to expand the background sci-fi into a full-blown mythology, the film wisely keeps us with the characters, namely Rhoda, and we’re barely allowed to care about anything she doesn’t care about.

On the verge of a romantic relationship with John (likely twice her age), Rhoda wins the essay contest and decides to go to Earth 2.  Yes, she reveals her true identity to John and yes, unfortunately, he reacts how you’d expect him to.  Thankfully, this revelation doesn’t solve anything; quite the contrary.  The conflict we had at the beginning of the story now resurfaces and needs to be resolved, and a certain character’s actions provide a solution so pure, so wholeheartedly selfless, that we’re simultaneously satisfied and pining for a different way.  This action doesn’t go unrewarded, however.  The final scene of the film is something I cannot spoil.  I’m willing to wait until you see the film to talk about it.  Suffice it to say it’s a stinger and a surprise without being a twist or a sequel hook, it’s a massive payoff without being contrived, and it fits the movie’s fictional science without providing a be-all-end-all solution to the complex issues of an entire planet (much less two).  I suspect lesser filmmakers would have gone for something much, much different.

The background story of Another Earth is more the stuff of science than the stuff of fiction.  At least, it’s based on a long-standing (but generally debunked) theory that a mirror Earth exists directly opposite us in orbit, and because it’s an exact mirror, the sun is always blocking us from seeing the other planet.  The way this information is conveyed in the narrative (non-glamorized news and narration by real-life scientist Richard Berendzen) is much stronger than the overwritten mumble-science of a film like Primer.

One of this story’s frequently asked questions is, “What would you say if you could meet yourself?”  John’s answer (“Hey, you up for a video game?”) and Rhoda’s answer (“Better luck next time.”) are so rigidly different and the performances of Marling and Mapother are so honest that after this film, even with such a seemingly preposterous background, I had to think about my answer.  Whatever that “place” was, I was there.  It was a long ride home.

Another Earth (2011); written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling; directed by Mike Cahill; starring Brit Marling and William Mapother.

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