Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: "Queen of Earth"

Director: Alex Ross Perry
Runtime: 90 minutes

There is an art to filming conversations between character, and it's one that is often ignored. Have two people on screen talking? Then just cut between closeups and mid-shots as each person speaks, with the occasional excursion to a wide shot to let you know that both actors actually shared space together on set. Hell, if there's some drama going on behind the scenes, you can just pretend that two actors were actually on screen together (paging The Good Wife).

Yet for director Alex Ross Perry, whose films never contain much in the way of visual flash, the handling of conversations is of the utmost importance. This is just a small, but crucial, part of why his latest film, psychological drama Queen of Earth, succeeds so well. Though there are scenes that employ the well-tread shot-reverse-shot method, Perry also showcases a flair for framing the ordinary in unexpected ways. In one early scene, as tragedy-stricken Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and successful Virginia (Katherine Waterston) chat, Perry allows the focus to wander. The entire scene takes place in one shot, and shifts from holding on the speaker to the listener. Some of the most important bits of acting take place as performers listen and react to their co-stars, and Perry utilizes this notion to great effect. 

There is also the matter of the nature of the conversation(s), and Queen of Earth has a knack for slyly ratcheting up the emotional tension without fully playing its hand. Which is good, seeing as this is the sort of psycho-drama that's heavy on people walking through rooms and talking, and light on external plot developments. Since it's long past due that I actually lay out of the story's foundation, it's this: best friends Catherine and Virginia take a vacation at the latter's (well, her parents') rural lake house after the former's life is turned upside down.

As we learn in the opening scene, a claustrophobic closeup on Moss' tear-stained face, Catherine's father has just died, which has prompted her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) to finally end their relationship (timing isn't his strong suit). Catherine is distraught, for reasons that go beyond the obvious. Virginia, meanwhile, is tasked with being the supporting BFF and emotional caretaker. Despite the placid water by the lake house, the friends' retreat is anything but smooth sailing. 

In these two roles, Mr. Perry has created two difficult personalities that are at once off-putting and fascinating. Perry's films have never gone out of their way to make characters likable, and that certainly hasn't changed now. But underneath these thorny exteriors lies the rich psychological substance that drives Queen of Earth from petty squabbling to acid-soaked monologues. If Bergman and Polanski had co-directed the beach house episode of Girls (and/or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), they would have come up with something like Perry's latest. 

Most intriguing is how Perry avoids giving out obvious answers. Catherine and Virginia may be friends, but they have funny ways of showing it. They often trade emotional places as well, at times blurring the line between each other (much like Bergman's Persona). That's precisely where the above-mentioned conversation scenes come into play. Closeups are - obviously - used to highlight an actor's face, but in Queen of Earth they also play a big part in erasing the weakening border that exists between the two leads. As we see in flashbacks, Catherine and Virginia were once in each others' shoes, and the smartly composed shots of them together subtly reinforce the idea that their emotional states are sliding up and down along an unsettling spectrum. Even when the women are separated, Perry finds ways of connecting their bodies (or minds), such as when he dissolves from a shot of Virginia jogging to Catherine sluggishly making her way down a staircase. 

Whether sharing Perry and cinematographer Sean P. Williams' compositions or not, both leads deliver standout performances as well. Waterston, who only came into the spotlight in last year's Inherent Vice, owns the first half of the film. The caretaker role can become redundant, yet the actress keeps Virginia full of surprises. You expect her to react to a situation one way, given previous examples, and then she does the opposite. Perry also gives the actress quite a bit of room to delve into the character in the thoughtfully-chosen flashbacks, which are informative rather than disruptive. Past and present run together much like Catherine and Virginia, reinforcing the creeping notion that we're all just a few degrees away from either triumph or a meltdown. 

With Waterston (mostly) acting as the emotional anchor of the piece, Moss is free to really let loose, and she does so spectacularly. She and Perry take quite a bit of time to wind up Catherine after the opening sob fest, forgoing the urge to fill the role with nothing but melodramatic outbursts. Catherine's unravelling is a slow motion spectacle of mental collapse, doled out in bits and pieces. Moss makes acrobatic leaps from bitterness to anger to tears to unhinged laughter, and lands them all with eerie plausibility. Despite the creepy score that gently pushes the story along, Queen of Earth is sincere in its treatment of mental instability, even though it often has an acerbic way of showing it. 

Perceptions of the characters and their actions change at every turn, and to watch the actors, but especially Moss, trace it all on their faces is both elegant and grotesque. Restraint is a powerful tool, and it's impressive how Perry and co. use it even when characters' psyches start fraying at the edges. When Catherine unleashes a torrent of invective on Virginia's smarmy boyfriend (Patrick Fugit), it's all the more frightening because of how quiet she keeps her voice, even though we know that there's a hurricane of bile built up inside. Rather than assault the character (and audience) with an explosion, Perry and Moss opt for a slow poisoning, ensuring that the side effects will linger under your skin and in your head for far longer. 

Grade: A-

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: "Z for Zachariah"

Director: Craig Zobel
Runtime: 95 minutes

The last thing anyone needs after surviving the apocalypse is to get stuck in a love triangle. Who has time for all of that drama when basic sustenance is a daily question mark? The answer, frustratingly, comes down to the last three people on earth. Two men. One woman. One isolated slice of untouched American Eden. That takes care of the who, but not the why. Director Craig Zobel, working with Nissar Modi to adapt Robert C. O'Brien's novel, answer the first question with flying colors. But when it comes time to dredge up the old love triangle and really make us care, they fall short, thereby stranding a trio of talented actors in a romantic drama that barely elicits more than a hollow, "so what?"

Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) spends her days tending to her family farm, which survived the unexplained death of mankind, and getting supplies from the nearby town in the valley below. Yet while Ann can roam about her family's territory in peace, descending from the ancestral perch requires putting on a makeshift hazmat suit and gas mask. Ann seems content in her isolation, until she encounters John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a government researcher sealed inside an experimental radiation-proof suit. The initial awkwardness (which here means "guns drawn, voices elevated") passes, and the pair begin to try and build a life together based on trust. 

In his opening act, Zobel demonstrates a solid command of the story, the characters, and the overall atmosphere at hand. Gorgeous landscape shots lend an otherworldly aura to Burden Valley, simultaneously emphasizing the location's innocence and its borders with vast expanses of rotten land. There's also a nice visual homage to Tarkovsky's Stalker, though the scene in Zobel's film ultimately comes across as padding. 

And speaking of looks, Robbie and Ejiofor don't look so bad themselves, despite just barely limping past humanity's expiration date. The first half hour contains hardly a trace of love or lust, and instead puts its energy toward exploring the fundamental differences of Ann and John's mindsets. Ann is still a devout Christian, determined to be as kind and humble as possible, while John has a rather blunt, mathematically driven point of view. He offers to build a water wheel to help generate power for Ann's home, but has to watch his step once he proposes using the wood from the Burden chapel as material. 

Though not without its minor hiccups, Z for Zachariah starts off promisingly, using its post-apocalyptic setting to tell a story about loss and loneliness, rather than just another zombie-filled splatter fest. But then the first awkward arrives and plants the seed of potential romance. The dialogue, not the film's strong suit to begin with, dips in quality. The actors are not tasked with saying anything overwrought, but the words gradually become clumsily arranged. Modi's screenplay has a habit of putting certain developments so close together that there's no time for them to acquire genuine meaning. When certain interactions occur, it feels as if we're watching a painfully condensed version of what was supposed to be a much longer scene. 

The arrival of Chris Pine's Caleb does little to help the film, other than adding another attractive face. Ann struggles to adapt to having another guest, and Z for Zachariah fumbles even more in acclimating to a third character. To his credit, Pine makes you wish that Caleb was a more prominent part of the story, investing the role with both mystery and aw-shucks folksiness. 

But with the narrative already struggling to find the right balance for the Ann-John dynamic, Caleb's arrival only further upsets the story's foundation. Both sides of the "courtship" that takes place are halfhearted. This wouldn't be a huge issue considering the post-apocalyptic backdrop, but the urgency of the situation never materializes. Ann could choose John, Caleb, or both. But her decision doesn't really carry much weight. Big decisions are certainly made in the film's final act, but the cumulative impact of these choices is as empty as the land beyond Ann's farm. Envy the dead of Z for Zachariah, for at least they never had to experience such aimless frustration.

Grade: C