Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

It seems like an age-old cinematic question: what would you do if you knew the end of the world was near? Most films depict riots, looting, crazy parties or on the other side of that coin, romantic or reconciliatory last ditch efforts to make you go, “Aww.” Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring the cute and lovely (respectively) Keira Knightley and Steve Carrell, is a film that also has all these things, but with just the right amount of humanity to make it go down easy.

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Faced this time with a Tim Burton-esque sounding threat: an asteroid named Matilda that is headed for Earth, Steve Carrell finds himself in his usual comedic stature here (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love) – he’s depressed and questioning his life and what it’s all been worth. It’s such familiar territory for him that there’s even a moment in the outtakes of the film where he cuts the scene before the director because he thought he could do a better take. Carrell is a talented actor, there’s no question about that, but I’m frankly a little tired now of the character he is always forced into. I’m all for comedy-via-self-deprecation, but there’s got to be something else he can do. Maybe a Robin Williams turn like in One Hour Photo would do Carrell good, and he could hone his acting chops on a character not so nice and empathizable for once.

Keira Knightley seems oddly less typecast than usual in this film, but maybe that’s because I’m more akin to her brooding romantic character creations which I’m generally fond of, even if the period pieces do get a wee bit old after a while. She’s a good fit for the character and her British lilt is charming and works given her character’s driving ulterior motive (she wants to visit her parents in England before the end of the world).

As fate would have it, mere weeks before their demise, these two soul mates finally meet. She helps him realize what he’s been missing all his life, and he helps her on the same front. The nice things about the movie is, it doesn’t make these characters necessarily perfect for, or a good balance for each other, but it makes them the kind of people who are willing to accept the other for their good and bad qualities and stick by them no matter what happens. They really do become friends before they ever realize their love for each other, and that’s subtly what leads them to even realize it.

The pacing and story of this film is superb. We knows there’s an imminent countdown to their fate looming over everything, and even when we start to wonder if that’s just all been forgotten by the filmmakers, the next scene throws a curve, declaring via news report that the asteroid’s actually a week early in its arrival. There’s no overly drawn out cinematic need to anticipate the inevitable – the audience is already anticipating it. In fact, I was literally in disbelief the whole way through, thinking there was surely going to be some red herring at the end that enabled the asteroid to just miss Earth, and everyone would get to live happily ever after. But then, I know I wouldn’t have been happy with that ending after a while, because how simple, painless and obvious would that be?

No, the filmmakers stick to their guns and go out on a poetic note even, in a denouement of scenes that will surely have you welling up with tears, if not full on crying into your shirt sleeves. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be easy to pan for many film critics, but I found it a refreshing take on the end-of-the-world movie and a smart, funny examination of what we really are as humans: fools, not so much scared of the end of life, but scared of living life, and consequently trying to always be something we’re not until we finally realize it’s too late.

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The Edge Of Love

Love is such a hard thing to film. You have to get each character’s insecurities just properly balanced; you have to give them nuances that only appear during their interactions, but also those that appear when they’re alone. It’s tricky business building a character that is three-dimensional and able to react to an emotion such as love with someone who they may not be pre-disposed to loving.

British period romantic dramas are such a hard thing to film. You have to get just the right mix of tumult and happiness; you have to make your characters into portraits of women and men of that period, but how can you really know what they would have been like without basing them off someone else? The overall issue with period dramas in general is that they are merely portraits of a time since passed. No matter the age of the audience member, like science fiction, it’s always going to take a certain viewer to be able to accept the images on the screen for real life.

That’s the large problem for me with The Edge Of Love, not because it was a bad film – it wasn’t – but because it was too much portrait and not enough artist.

I really like Dylan Thomas as a poet and found myself enamored by his work throughout many of my Lit classes in college. Unlike other period dramas about poets and writers once lived though, Edge Of Love, doesn’t weigh down the script with borrowed lines of Thomas’ work. It’s just he right amount.  However, most of the characters never really come to life, and truly the greatest thing going for the film is the pairing of Cillian Murphy (as William) and Keira Knightley (as Vera).  These two actors fit superbly together and both always give strong inward reflecting performances. Not to be out done, Sienna Miller (as Caitlin) is also great with her beau Dylan Thomas (played by Matthew Rhys), but they don’t hold as much infectious screen time as William and Vera.

Disappointingly, the relationship between the two women never progresses as much as the film’s synopsis would have you suppose. Clearly they relied on each other for support which their respective men couldn’t provide. Vera’s, because William was at war, fighting in the trenches in Greece and Caitlin’s because Dylan lived through his words and found comfort in alcohol. The story portrays the character of Dylan Thomas a man who knows not what he wants and manipulates the love from both Caitlin and Vera – although the last time he was with Vera romantically was at the age of 15 – he is convincing himself that she will make him happy and maybe even being with her will allow him to regress to that 15-year old boy again.

Cillian Murphy as William, conversely, plays the stolid, military-man, who may not be as romantic, charismatic and unexpected as Thomas, but he is loyal, loving and reliable and that’s all some women need. And really, why shouldn’t they? Well, because a man like that will never know how or have the courage to express his deepest concerns or feelings (that he may find somewhat uncomfortable) to his lover, he will always be closed off and inaccessible on an emotional level, regardless of his love and loyalty. So, it comes as no surprise when William returns from war that he goes ape-shit at the thought of having shared his wife with Dylan while he was away. He is unable to talk to Vera about it rationally (blinded by a combination of his post-war shell-shock and mistrust for his wife) and instead fires off his rifle at the adjoining property in which the Thomas’s live.

The director John Maybury (The Jacket, 2005) would have us think that this is sort of the catalyst or turning point in the film by simple fact of the x-ray vision which William miraculously possesses just moments before he unloads on the little cottage. Frankly, it was an odd scene for me to accept, because here we are in this war-ravaged time period, in a romantic drama, and all of a sudden – BAM! – x-ray vision! So basically, William pauses for a moment and we see a CGI cut-out of the interior of the cottage through the outside walls. Then he fires. It’s ludicrous. It’s like the only reason the scene is there is so we can believe that maybe he didn’t intend to shoot/harm anyone, because he’s so adept in killing, he was able to scope out the target before ever firing? All of a sudden we’ve jumped genres and, at least me as a viewer, lost respect.

William is later arrested and brought to trial, where the real story begins as he is set free and he finally begins to settle in his reclaimed life with Vera. I say the real story begins here, because the only interesting relationship I saw in this movie was that between William and Vera. The rest is all so two-dimensional, that it felt as flat and fake as the set design. If this film is art, William and Vera’s (forced) love (or fear of being alone) was the medium itself, everything else was just fancy brushstrokes.