Another Earth


Another Earth

Brit Marling checks out a different point of view.

(2011) Science Fiction (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor, Flint Beverage, Diane Ciesla, Bruce Winant, Natalie Carter, Meggan Lennon, AJ Diana, Kumar Pallana, Ana Kayne, Matthew-Lee Erlbach. Directed by Mike Cahill

From time to time, we all do something wrong – either through our actions or inaction, we cause others pain and/or suffering. It is our human nature to want to make amends. However sometimes the things we do are so unforgivable that no amends are possible.

Rhoda Williams (Marling), a high school senior at West Haven High School in New Haven, Connecticut has just been accepted to MIT in the field of astrophysics. She goes out with friends to celebrate and winds up celebrating a bit too much, getting herself well and truly hammered. While driving home, she hears  a news report about the discovery of a new Earth-like planet visible in the night sky. As she cranes her head to take a look, she runs a stop sign and her car slams into another car, putting its driver into a coma and killing his pregnant wife and son instantly. Rhoda is sentenced to prison although because she’s a minor, her name is never released.

Flash-forward four years. A guilt-wracked Rhoda has just been released from prison. Even though she qualifies for better positions, she takes  a job as a janitor at her old high school. The new Earth is large in the night sky now, visible as a beautiful blue moon. It is coming closer and will soon be close enough for a manned mission to be possible. An Australian entrepreneur comes up with  the scheme to fly civilians to the new world and launches an essay contest for worthy participants in this adventure. Rhoda, still fascinated by other worlds, decides impulsively to enter.

Her crime gnaws at her however and eventually she makes her way to the home of the surviving victim who came out of his coma while she was in jail. John Burroughs (Mapother) was a noted composer before the accident; now he mostly is a hermit, uncaring and uncared for. She wants to apologize but is unable to bring herself to do it. Instead, she offers him a free trial housecleaning. After some reluctance, John accepts.

A one day free trial turns into a weekly housecleaning. A relationship begins to form. John begins to awaken from his life coma. Boundaries are crossed. And in the sky another Earth, an exact duplicate to this one inhabited by doppelgangers of the inhabitants of this Earth, becomes large and majestic, a serene, unblinking witness to events on our world.

This was an independent movie that became quite a sensation at this year’s Sundance, prompting a bidding war among distributors. It’s easy to see why. While ostensibly science fiction, this is actually more of a drama about atonement and moving on. However, it can easily also be interpreted about having several other themes, from rebirth to individual uniqueness to personal growth. Pick one; pick ’em all. You won’t be wrong.

The movie is underlit for the most part and sometimes grainy, with a lot of it being shot in the handheld style rather than on a tripod. This gives it a sort of kinetic energy while lending it an almost intimate “home movie” feel. For my own personal taste, a little of that is more effective and too much comes off as pretentious and too self-aware. Fortunately, the filmmakers don’t quite achieve those undesirable qualities.

Mapother is a respected character actor whose face you’ll probably recognize before the name (he is perhaps best known for his recurring character Ethan Rom on the much-missed TV show “Lost”). Here he is the romantic lead, a role that is certainly not one associated with him (even if he is Tom Cruise’s cousin and shares the same amazing smile) in his career to date. He is professorial here – a good thing since his character is a teacher – and vulnerable, obviously marinating in pain. As hope begins as an ember within him, we witness a bit of a transformation – subtle but undeniable.

Marling, who co-wrote the script and also garnered a production credit here has a far more difficult role in many ways and doesn’t quite hit all the right notes, but enough of them to make it a compelling performance. Her Rhoda is drowning in guilt, reaching out for the life preserver of forgiveness and instead finding herself holding on to the anchor of penance. Rhoda is brilliant but as young people are wont to do, makes some egregious mistakes. She becomes obsessed with the consequences of her accident and that obsession leads her to doing things I don’t think most of us would ever consider doing.

There are some beautiful shots of big blue planet Earth 2 hanging in the sky, growing gradually bigger as the movie goes on until it is a presence in the sky bigger than the moon. I like that the movie presented scientific debate on the nature of Earth 2 and asked a number of philosophical questions about the nature of our existence and how it would change if we knew there were doubles of ourselves running around somewhere.

Don’t trouble yourself overly much with questions about the science – asking what the presence of a planet the size of our own in such close proximity would do to our own world (one suspects the tidal forces of the gravity between the two planets would eventually tear both planets apart) or where this previously unknown world came from is not what this movie is all about. Rather, it is about questioning ourselves. Could we ask forgiveness? Could we forgive? Are we truly unique? All questions worth asking.

The final shot is ambiguous enough to remind you that a good filmmaker doesn’t answer your questions; they just inspire you to ask them in the first place. While I might have appreciated a little bit tighter on the editing (shots of Rhoda wringing her hands and looking soulful are only necessary once for a brief moment of time to indicate her anguish), this is nonetheless a very strong effort and indicates to me that we’ll be hearing much more in the future from Cahill, Marling and Mapother.

REASONS TO GO: The story can be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways. Mapother does a great job here.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally submits to “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome. Also has moments of pretentiousness.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of foul language, a little bit of nudity, some drug use and a somewhat disturbing accident sequence..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill used his own childhood home in New Haven, Connecticut to double as the Williams home; Rhoda’s bedroom was actually his own.

HOME OR THEATER: While this is out in limited release, some of the vistas of the new planet are spectacular and worth seeing on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Big Momma’s House

CSA: The Confederate States of America


CSA: The Confederate States of America

Heroic soldiers of the Confederate Army raise the Stars & Bars over Mt. Suribachi.

(IFC) Charles Frank, Rupert Pate, Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson, Harvey A. Williams, Arlo Kasper, Robert Sokol. Directed by Kevin Willmott

There are watershed moments in history that are so significant, we are often prompted to ask “what if” those moments didn’t go the way they actually did.

The fall of the Confederacy is one such moment. Writers like Harry Turtledove have speculated on what the world would look like if the South had won the Civil War. Here, director Willmott gives us a look in a highly original method. Inspired by Ken Burns’ influential PBS documentary “The Civil War,” he posits a British documentary on the history of America that goes counter to what the Confederate government has taught its people and asks questions that the government doesn’t want the American people to consider.

In this version of history, Judah Benjamin (an actual historical figure) convinces England and France to come to the aid of the South, supplying troops to help Robert E. Lee overwhelm the Union army at Gettysburg. As a result, the Confederacy wins the war and conquers Washington DC. Abraham Lincoln (Kasper) attempts to flee north to Canada, aided by Harriet Tubman. They are caught, Tubman summarily executed and Lincoln sent to a military prison where he languishes for two years before being pardoned and exiled to Canada, where he lives in bitterness until his death in 1905.

The film is narrated by Frank in a dry manner that nails what you would hear in actual British documentaries. Much of the information is communicated by a pair of historians from opposite sides of the coin; Confederate historian and apologist Sherman Hoyle (Pate) and Patricia Johnson (Johnson), a Canadian historian descended from American slaves who fled to the Great White North. There is also John Fauntroy V (Peterson), a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party descended from one of the founders of the Confederacy and whose family has achieved Kennedy-like status in this alternate universe.

A further conceit is that the documentary is being transmitted on broadcast television for the first time, and there are commercials interspersed for products, many of which I won’t repeat here because they are so offensive. However, many of them are actual products from American history and those that aren’t, like a website for online slave auctions, might well have been.

Director Willmott is an academic, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and displays an academic’s perspective, which leads to an overly dry sensibility at times. Still, he also has a deft hand at satire and when the movie is at its best, it is genuinely funny and thought-provoking. However, the movie can be scattershot; when the movie isn’t working, it can be awfully uncomfortable. This may well be on purpose or to help us examine our own attitudes towards racism. In any case, no less a personage than Spike Lee has put his stamp on the film, whose name is attached to the film as a “Spike Lee presents” type of thing.

This isn’t for everyone; the production values here aren’t exceptional and the acting can be a mixed bag. Still if you look at the big picture, the movie has plenty to offer and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a movie that makes you consider your own values somewhat.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some genuinely cutting satire here and when the movie works, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: When the movie isn’t working well, the viewer feels more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Younger sorts may not understand that this is a satire and not an actual documentary. There is a good deal of racist invective (necessarily, given the subject matter) that may be disturbing to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The faux D.W. Griffith movie The Capture of Dishonest Abe includes footage from actual D.W. Griffith movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Flags of Our Fathers

The Invention of Lying


Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

(Touchstone) Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Fionnula Flanagan, Jonah Hill, Stephanie March, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Imagine a world where honesty is the only policy, where lies are unknown and advertising is completely truthful. Movies are accounts of actual events whose scripts are read on-camera since nobody can conceive of pretending to be someone they aren’t.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) lives in just such a world. People are incapable of lying in this alternate universe so when Mark goes on a blind date with Anna (Garner), she informs him at the door to her apartment that she is disappointed that he isn’t more fit and handsome and that the likelihood of them having any sex that evening is remote at best.

Things go from bad to worse for Mark. His beloved mother (Flanagan) is in a nursing home (or, as it is aptly named, “A Sad Place Where Homeless Old People Come to Die”) and he is about to be fired from his job as a screenwriter just as soon as his dithering boss (Tambor) can work up the courage to tell him, much to the bemusement of his chief rival Brad Kessler (Lowe) who hates him inexplicably, and his secretary (Fey) who looks down on him.

His landlord (Santiago-Hudson), having found out about Mark’s sudden change of employment, evicts him. Sad-sack Mark shuffles off to the bank to withdraw the $300 left to him so that he can rent a truck to load his things into. When he is informed by the teller that the system is down so she can’t look up his account to close it, Mark is struck by inspiration. He tells the teller he has $800 in his account and even though the system comes back up and says he only has $300, the teller gives him the larger amount. After all, human beings are far more reliable than machines.

Mark is ecstatic. He has discovered a game-changer, something that will completely turn around life as he knows it. He tries to tell his friends Greg (C.K.) and Phil (Hoffman) about it, but the words don’t even exist to convey telling something other than the truth. Mark experiments to see what he can accomplish; he tells a gorgeous blonde (March) that unless she has sex with him, the world will end – she believes him. He tells a cop (Norton) that his inebriated friend Greg that he has pulled over for drunk driving is in fact not drunk. He lets them off.

Things seem to be getting better for Mark. He gets his job back by writing a fictitious script he passes off as the truth, and becomes wealthy by scamming casinos after his script becomes a major hit. However, when he is overheard comforting his dying mother (Flanagan) with words about a beautiful afterlife instead of the oblivion that the people of this world have been bred to believe in, this sets off a chain reaction that will change the world in far more profound ways than even he can expect.

This is an intriguing premise that isn’t always pulled off well. It’s what Hollywood insiders call “high concept” which is what critics like to call “an idea without a plot.” The world Gervais envisions is not unlike our own, except nobody has a filter – they just blurt out whatever is on their minds, sort of like a world of six-year-olds. People are cruel to each other, sometimes intentionally.

This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to examine things in our world that depend on not telling the absolute truth, such as advertising, movies, dating and religion. The problem is they don’t really do much with the opportunity. The movie’s second half degenerates into a romantic comedy that is more about the relationship between Lowe, Garner and Gervais instead of really digging down further into the nature of religion, advertising and romance. The movie seems to be more on its game when its satire rather than romantic comedy. Yes, Mark’s words of comfort regarding an afterlife (in which everyone gets a mansion to live in) turn him into something of a prophet but that is almost an afterthought as Mark struggles to win the girl.

Gervais has made a career of playing buffoonish jerks who you love to hate but here he plays a buffoonish jerk that has a heart of gold. Once he discovers the happiness his lies bring, he walks around town whispering lies that bring smiles to the faces of the downtrodden. He knows he isn’t in Anna’s league but he is smitten by her anyway and can’t bring himself to tell her anything but the truth – mostly.

Garner has had an uneven film career since the days of “Alias” but this is one of her finer roles. She plays Anna as a woman who knows how attractive she is but not in a vain or self-centered way. Rather, she just knows she wants her children to have the best genes possible. Deep down she’s sweet and caring; like everyone in this reality, she’s merely judgmental and quite open about it.

The movie at its core is sweet-natured, just enough to leave me with the warm fuzzies leaving the theater. The scene between Mark and his mother in the hospital is highly moving. Unfortunately, the writers sabotage the movie with inane situations and the producers bring too many distracting cameos into the mix – such as Jason Bateman as a doctor and a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Guest as a script reader. The movie would have profited from a little more depth.

Although there is an implied premise that lying is the way to achieve everything you want in life, I thought the movie was more about knowing when to tell the truth and when it is better not to. There are a lot of people out there who can benefit about that particular lesson.

I enjoyed The Invention of Lying far more than Da Queen did, although I have to admit that Gervais seems incapable of reciting dialogue in anything but Gervais-speak – as in short, clipped sentence fragments. Like this. For everything. All his dialogue. Just like this. Right. In any case it makes for a pleasant diversion.

REASONS TO GO: Jennifer Garner’s best performance to date augments an intriguing premise. The movie has a good deal of heart and has at least one genuinely moving moment.

REASONS TO STAY: The romantic comedy aspect doesn’t work as well as the satire. Too many cameos spoil the broth.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and abusive language but otherwise okay.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by Gervais.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a home video recommendation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bright Star