SIFF Roundup: “Another Earth”, “Kosmos”

Directed by Mike Cahill
Written by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill

Another Earth is an ambitious film, to be sure. It depicts the sudden appearance of another planet, seemingly identical to our own, in perfect view in the skies above New Haven, CT. The planet appears in nearly every outdoor shot of the film, which made me momentarily wonder if a planet that is visibly larger and closer than the moon in geostationary orbit might be catastrophic for our planet’s tides, tectonic plates, continued human existence, and so forth.

While the film doesn’t directly address these issues, it’s possible that similar worries are flowing through the head of Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), a 17-year-old student who has recently been accepted to MIT. On the night that Earth Two appears, she is driving under the influence and gazing up at the new planet, and the distraction is sufficient to send her careening into the family station wagon of music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother from “Lost”), putting him into a coma and instantly killing his wife and son. At this point, the film skips ahead 4 years, as Rhoda emerges from prison and gets it into her head to reconnect with John (who has since awoken) to apologize, and because she was a minor at the time of the accident, her name was sealed in the court records, and he has no idea who she is. At this point, the film effectively ditches its sci-fi premise and becomes an exploration of an extremely ill-advised relationship between the two, as well as a study of grief and regret. Earth Two becomes a cipher – an ever-present reminder of what Rhoda has done that could have been replaced with virtually anything else – a photograph? A roadside memorial?

It was in that sense that the film was disappointing. As Rhoda enters a contest with a private space agency (in a nice bit of worldbuilding) for the first commercial flight to Earth Two, we’re meant to believe it’s something she desperately wants for herself, but the film never quite sells this idea. Instead, it just ends up comparing unfavorably to a film like Gattaca, in which the romance of spaceflight and the unrelenting desire to achieve it make up an ever-present and thoroughly convincing backdrop. This film gives us Rhoda’s prior interest in astronomy, as well as the occasional gaze through a telescope (in broad daylight, through a window), but we’re never sure if she really wants to go to Earth Two, or if she simply no longer wishes to live on Earth One, where she’s caused so much pain and suffering.

The film has an undeniably effective sci-fi premise (on-the-nose metaphors notwithstanding), but it never quite succeeded in portraying a world in which such a mindbending event has occurred. All the fascinating bits of hard sci-fi are relegated to momentary snippets from talking heads on radio and TV, and the few everyday people that we meet never quite seem like their lives have been altered significantly. A sudden third-act revelation about the occupants of Earth Two is also not explored in sufficient detail, particularly by those who are considering making the trip.

Nonetheless, Marling and Mapother’s performances are convincing, and effectively sell the increasing stakes of their relationship as Rhoda continues to hide her true identity. While Another Earth doesn’t succeed as a piece of science fiction, it is at least somewhat effective as an exploration of grief and regret.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Written/directed by Reha Erdem

As a general rule, I will not seek out writer/director interviews in order to increase my understanding of a film that I intend to write about. Since this film was followed by a director Q&A, I was not expecting to write a review – but for Kosmos, I will make an exception. First, because there is enough inexplicable weirdness in this film to make David Lynch blush. And second, because the Q&A only illuminated the extent to which a shit-eating grin transcends language barriers, as Erdem’s good-natured amusement at the audience’s befuddled response (and refusal to answer any questions in detail) was apparent even via translator.

The film begins with the titular Kosmos (Sermet Yasil) appearing outside a Turkish mountain village and immediately saving the life of a boy drowning in the river. The boy is ostensibly frozen to death when Kosmos plucks him from the water, but walks away nonetheless, the first of many to be aided by Kosmos’ ability to cure all manner of ailments, both physical and mental. He also speaks in very formal, almost scriptural language, expounding in broad strokes about the nature of God, man, good and evil, and so forth. He also breaks into a cheese shop and steals money from the cash drawer. And he also courts the girl of his dreams, Neptün (Türkü Turan), via a giddy, animalistic call-and-response game, in which the two chase each other around the village while blasting high-pitched, ornithic love-screams.

While Kosmos is a bizarrely fascinating character – equal parts Doctor Who, Jesus Christ, and psychotic hobo – he is but a small component of this densely packed film. Old men in a tea shop debate a petition to open up the border to trade, even as their wary attitudes about outsiders become readily apparent. The army conducts some kind of exercise nearby, giving the town a constant rumble of distant munitions explosions. A satellite is also poised to crash, and we hear snippets of its failing radio signal throughout the film. And what’s more, the townsfolk complain about this as if it’s a common occurrence.

I don’t dare summarize any more plot (I’ve omitted a story lifted wholesale from Weekend at Bernie’s), but suffice to say, there’s a lot going on in this film, and I was completely taken in by it. Kosmos is an incredibly rich (and beautifully shot) experience that I suspect will become even richer on subsequent viewings. While its weirdness for weirdness’ sake wore on my patience a bit by the third act, I’ve still found myself pondering the lives and interactions of this small-town slice of life every day since I saw the film. From the politicos in the tea shop to the random flocks of geese, I would gladly spend more time with all of them – even Kosmos with his migraine-inducing bird calls.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Yôjirô Takita’s “Departures” – The ritual of mortality

Poster for "Departures".

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, Yôjirô Takita’s Departures. The film stars Masahiro Motoki as Daigo, a Tokyo cellist who finds himself out of a job after his orchestra is disbanded, and is forced to move back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He reluctantly takes a job as an encoffiner, performing a series of delicate ceremonies to prepare a recently deceased body and place it in a coffin before the family. He initially acts as an assistant, gradually learning the trade from his boss, Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki).

The film initially seems to rely on a knowledge of Japanese culture, attitudes, and rituals surrounding death, and it quickly becomes evident that Daigo’s employment, while financially lucrative, is not considered remotely respectable in society. He keeps the job a secret from his wife, and is subject to constant shame by the townspeople. In the first act, the film strangely takes on the air of a quaint little after-school special. As I took stock of this seemingly contrived intolerance from my cynical American perspective, my reaction was pretty dismissive: Wow, those Japanese sure are uptight about death.

If that’s all Departures had been, my [borderline offensive] reaction would have likely remained unchanged, and I may have found the film to be a waste of time. In fact, this film – with its 131-minute runtime, ponderous themes of life and death, and frankly masturbatory poster shot (above) – seems to fit the exact formula for a film that’s likely to be seen by no one. But in spite of my initial reaction, I found myself completely drawn in by it. As the film goes on, it proves itself an adept and thoughtful exploration of the ritual of mortality, driven by some very strong performances.

We see many “prepping the dead” scenes performed in front of the families of the deceased – each one almost plays out like a short film, and the first has several unexpected comedic beats that aptly set up the tone of the film. For a film about death and mortality, Departures turns out to be surprisingly light viewing. And while showing the entirety of each death ritual for several minutes at a time may have dragged out the film, I found it to be a brave and surprisingly effective choice. Joe Hisaishi’s score is particularly striking throughout the film (and in these scenes in particular). There are a number of sequences in which the film cuts back and forth between Daigo prepping a body and playing his cello – even prodding the fourth wall a bit as the score syncs up to accompany him. It’s a shameless and slightly jarring trick, but the illusion never quite breaks, and the film’s none-too-subtle parallels between playing the cello and prepping a dead body are aptly conveyed.

It certainly helps that Takeshi Hamada’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. We get the sense that Daigo’s hometown of Sakata is meant to be a bit of a dive, but you wouldn’t know it from the scenery. As Daigo preposterously plays his cello outdoors in the winter cold (a feat that would probably crack it down the middle in real life), I just couldn’t stop marveling at the wondrous backdrops and taking in the rich, flowing orchestral beats.

But as the film went on, I was struck the most by the beauty and dignity of the death rituals, and chastised myself a bit for the “after-school special” vibe with which I cast the film initially. Are the Japanese uptight about death? Certainly. But we all are, even if American culture handles it with slightly different ritualistic trappings. Daigo and Ikuei may not be well-respected, but the film effectively conveys the nobility of their profession.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Mild spoilers will follow.
I wish I could end my review here, but the fact is, Departures takes a 15-minute detour at the end that I found completely jarring and unnecessary. Much of the film’s conflict stems from Mika’s disapproval of Daigo’s profession, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that she eventually changes this opinion. While the character transformation is fairly standard, it is Ryoko Hirosue’s performance that made me completely buy it. She starts off as a devoted and loving wife – visibly bothered by their new living situation, but staying supportive. As the film goes on, the character could easily have turned shrewy, but Hirosue keeps her completely sympathetic, and her chemistry with Motoki is impressive. And then, not two minutes after that conflict is entirely and satisfactorily resolved (in front of another needlessly gorgeous outdoor backdrop)…

Someone else dies. And no, it’s not who you think, because this fresh corpse has not been around for any part of the film. We’re treated to a shocking revelation about a secondary character that comes completely out of left field, and the ensuing plotline completely abandons and undermines the well-established surrogate father/son relationship between Daigo and Ikuei (and aided by their masterful performances). The first two hours of this film felt like a complete story, but this denouement sent it completely off the rails. Much like this review, Departures would have been better off ending just a little sooner.

Patrice Leconte’s “Ridicule” – Presque perdu dans la traduction*

*Almost lost in translation.

Films about pre-revolutionary France tend to share a kind of sadistic fatalism. They present a picture of boorish aristocrats too consumed in their own petty affairs to see the opposition and hatred fomenting beneath them. They’re tragic characters, but in some sense, they deserve whatever they get.

Patrice Leconte’s Academy Award nominated 1996 film Ridicule is no exception.

In the court of Louis XVI, wealth and status rule the day, but the real king is belle esprit – literally, “beautiful mind”. Belle esprit is what the aristocrats call a sharp, biting wit. They craft a perfectly brutal and entirely zero-sum situation in which the only way to advance one’s status in the court is to publicly and brilliantly humiliate another (and avoid being ridiculed oneself).

Entering the fray is Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a small-time nobleman from the Dombes province who seeks the support of the king to rid his country of the horrible swamps that kill the majority of his peasants via mosquito-borne illnesses. He meets the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), an aged aristocrat whose wits are no longer sharp enough to compete in court. The Marquis takes Malavoy under his wing, teaching him the use of repartée, word games, rhyming epigrams, and other clever bits of malevolent wordplay that will bring him ever-closer to an audience with the king.

But never puns, warns the Marquis. Puns are the “death of wit”. And never laugh at your own jokes.

Malavoy takes to these rules famously, despite conflicting strategic and romantic interests in the gorgeous and cunning courtesan widow, Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), and the Marquis de Bellegarde’s breathtaking and scientifically-minded daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche). He also faces opposition by Madame de Blayac’s current companion, the Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau). While the film’s hollowly-crafted love triangle is made a good deal more convincing by marvelous performances on the part of the three leads, this film’s effectiveness is made entirely by the brilliantly crafted court dialogue.

Rémi Waterhouse’s script shines in these scenes. If Aaron Sorkin wrote about old-world aristocratic politics, this is almost certainly what it would sound like. However, the film strikes a somewhat bizarre tone. It revels in the cruelty of these scenes in a fashion that is almost darkly comedic, but also feels the need to impress upon us how deeply misguided and out-of-touch these people are.

The court scenes also contain such precise and esoteric language that they raise an unfortunate and seemingly unavoidable issue that comes when bringing a film to a new language – inaccurate translation. At times, the English subtitles accurately conveyed the language, and at times they were adjusted as the scene required, such as a scene in which the characters are rhyming. However, the language would occasionally be oversimplified in a way that seemingly contributed nothing to the scene, and in some cases, completely changed the meaning of the original line.

A few examples…

French line English subtitle Actual translation
Votre place n’est pas ici. We don’t belong here. Your place is not here.
Il est moins bête qu’il semble. He’s smarter than he looks He is less dumb than he seems.
Nous sommes de la même espèce. You and I are alike. We’re of the same species.
Il ne faut pas sacrifier tout à nos destins. Our plans come first. Do not sacrifice all for our destinies.
On voyait un diable devant la croix? Have you seen a ghost? Did you see a devil before the cross?

There was an outcry back in March of this year when Magnolia Pictures mangled the subtitles of Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant Swedish vampire coming-of-age film, Let the Right One In. Having seen (and loved) the theatrical version, I promptly returned my copy of this film to Amazon when I heard the news about the faulty subtitles. It’s always a tough balancing act when deciding how to watch a film in a language you don’t know (or even a language I do know, in the case of Ridicule). If you choose the dubbed version, you get a caliber of acting typically reserved for cereal commercials, but at least you don’t have to read any subtitles. If you choose the original version, the acting is better, but you still have to contend with lazy translation. Some films, such as those of popular animators like Hiyao Miyazaki, receive solid translations and dubs with real actors. Just have to take what you can get, I suppose.

But I digress.

Ridicule is a solid film, competently shot, and feels visually authentic (with the period backdrops and costumes). It’s probably more enjoyable if you know a bit of French, but the acerbic wit and incisive jabs are delivered well enough to transcend the language barrier.

Details about Ridicule‘s ending will follow.


Like the court scenes, the film’s ending is tonally bizarre. It introduces a duel with a character that had not appeared in any prior scene, and seems to serve only to give Malavoy some minor triumph, or at least demonstrate his hypocritically selective pride. The love story is ended in a more satisfying manner, owing largely to Mathilde’s quite believable transformation (and Judith Godrèche’s brilliant performance), but the central conflict between Malavoy and Vilecourt is not resolved in any conventional sense. Vilecourt’s antagonism is compelling, but Malavoy only ever wins a few minor skirmishes. Vilecourt’s largely self-inflicted downfall seems to suggest that in such foul and petty company, it is quite possible to be too clever for one’s own good. Or perhaps, even more simply, the longer you spend in this court, the more likely you are to pass out of favor like last year’s fashions.

Ultimately, the characters’ machinations count for very little. And given the proximity of the film’s timeframe to the Reign of Terror, it’s probably better for Malavoy that he finds himself digging through the muck alongside his peasants in the end. Any success at court would’ve gained him, at best, a half-dug canal, and at worst, a guillotine blade to the back of the neck.

But at least he met a nice young lady for his troubles.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10