Movie of the Month: Last Night (1999)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Brandon, Boomer, and Britnee watch Last Night (1999).

Alli: Primarily an actor, this is the first feature film Don McKellar directed. When approached by a film project about the Y2K scare, he became inspired to make a movie about the end of the world. Last Night is about the end of the world, but it’s not about explosions, catastrophic earthquakes, super volcanoes, global climate change, or even about the physical mechanism causing it at all. Told in loosely interconnected vignettes, It’s a movie about how people would react to the last moments they have left.

McKellar plays Patrick Wheeler, a sarcastic, neurotic loner, who just wants to enjoy some solitude on his last night, much to the dismay of his parents. As he comes back home from an awkward “Christmas” dinner with his family, he meets Sandra (Sandra Oh), who wants to get home to her husband (David Cronenberg) before the world ends.  In between, Jennifer (Sarah Polley), Patrick’s sister parties in the street, Donna (Tracy Wright) works in an office by herself dancing to the oldies, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) hooks up with everyone, and Patrick’s family watches home videos. Slowly the movie counts down to midnight when the world will end.

Britnee, did you like the premise of an apocalyptic movie focusing on just the people, or were you missing the cause of it all?

Britnee: The idea of an apocalyptic movie focusing on human life rather than extreme environmental events seems like something that I would really enjoy, but I didn’t have the most pleasurable experience watching Last Night. I was so frustrated with just about every single character throughout the entire movie, especially Sandra. She was such a robot, and although this was more than likely purposefully done, I wanted to pull my hair out watching her unsuccessfully make her journey home to her husband before the world ends. Just watching her choose between two bottles of wine in the looted convenience store drove me crazy! Her last hours of human life were wasted by her lollygagging around the city, and the sad part is that she didn’t even seem as though she was happy or at peace with the fact that the world is ending. The only characters who were not total disappointments were Jennifer and Craig because they made the most out of their last few hours on Earth when compared to everyone else. I get that this film took a more comical approach to the end of the world, and it may seem as though I’m taking the film a bit to seriously, but my nerves were completely shot by the end.

Speaking of the ending, I was really shocked at the way the film concluded. As Patrick and Sandra each have a pistol romantically pressed against each other’s skulls, one would expect their brain juice to be splatter all over the place as the countdown to the world’s end get in the single digits. Of course, a film as unpredictable as Last Night would not end in such an expected way. They both pull the guns away from each other after the countdown is over, and instead of bursting into flames (or whatever is supposed to happen to humans when the world ends), they start making out. It wasn’t a disappointing ending at all, but it just didn’t feel very satisfying. I think I wasn’t satisfied with the ending because I didn’t vibe with Patrick and Sandra’s nonchalant characters.

Boomer, were you satisfied by the not-so-morbid ending of Last Night? Were you bored by Patrick and Sandra’s relationship?

Boomer: Usually, you and I are pretty in-sync when it comes to MotM flicks, Britnee. This time, though, it looks like we had contrary opinions. I loved this movie much more than I expected to, and while I thought that the relationship between Patrick and Sandra was one of the less compelling elements in the larger, more engaging gestalt, it certainly didn’t rub me the wrong way in the way that it seems to have affected you. With regards to the ending, however, I have to admit that I found it more sad than expected (not even counting the death of Cronenberg’s Duncan); for the entire film, I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, for some last minute miracle to fend off the end of the world. The general atmosphere of the nineties hung so low and thick over the ambiance of the film that I kept expecting all the Sturm und Drang about the end of the world to be a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing, much like the Y2K bug (which, to be fair, could have been as disastrous a technological issue as was advertised were it not for the efforts of computer engineers to prevent the “crash”). It wasn’t until sometime around the 10 PM chyron that I realized that night wasn’t falling and began to accept that the end of the world might be legitimate.

I did find Sandra and Patrick to be compelling, although I felt a greater empathy for Sandra, especially as her quiet desperation to die with agency, instead of falling victim to the indifferent vicissitudes of fate, escalated as that agency slipped through her fingers.  Patrick’s initial scenes painted him somewhat unsympathetically; though we later got some insight into his past that informed this behavior, that poor first impression never quite left me. Overall, although we spend most of the film with these two, I was more captivated by the quieter moments that we spent with other characters, and the human condition demonstrated therein. I was particularly captivated by the woman on the trolley whose existential crisis has left her in a state of near catatonia, as well as the silent acceptance of death that played out as Geneviève Bujold’s Mme. Carlton spends her final hour in a mostly empty music hall.

So, here’s the part where I make a confession. I wrote the above paragraph on the day before the night of the election, and today is the day after. There’s a lot of anxiety in the air today, especially among and on behalf of LGBTQIA folk, people of color, and those of non-Christian faiths. The number of hate crimes against the historically disenfranchised has skyrocketed already, and many among us are afraid of what’s to come. Whether or not a societal collapse is inevitable (as it is in this film) or avertable (as Y2K was), Last Night speaks to me more strongly now than it did just a week ago when I first saw it. Will we have an initial outburst of rabblerousing and violence that peaks and dies as we all accept, and perhaps embrace, the end as it comes? Only time will tell.

Brandon, did you find that particular premise, of a society that panics and then accepts its death with dignity (for the most part) believable? As a concept, it mostly exists to set the table for the human drama to unfold in a world that mostly reflects ours, with focus on the subtle apprehension thereof rather than having characters deal with the fallout of a radically different social environment (as is usually the case in films with this subject matter). If it is believable, why? If not, why does it work anyway?

Brandon: I think the major reason Last Night works as well as it does for me might be the very reason it frustrated Britnee. There’s a defeatist resignation to most of the characters that I found fascinating from scene to scene, whether it manifested in strong convictions like Sandra’s determined quest for a romantic suicide or the more delusional avoidance of unpleasant thoughts from folks like Patrick’s nostalgic parents and the woman on the go-nowhere bus. There are no non-believers in this world. Everyone has accepted that The End is nigh, from the mentally deranged, self-appointed town crier to the well-tailored business man with a wealthy homestead. And yet, although there’s no real point for society to continue to carry on, the gas company makes sure their utilities keep flowing, news broadcasts continue to air, sex work still thrives, and so on. I think the major reason this all resonates as realistic to me is that the panic before the calm, much like the exact cause for the impending Apocalypse, occurs two whole months before the film begins. We aren’t privy to the moment when the world accepts its doomed fate. We only witness their mental unraveling once the dust of the initial panic has settled. They’ve had two months to come to terms with their collective ruin and although everything is calm on the surface (like when Sandra is picking out her last bottle of wine in the decimated grocery store), mental anguish finds its own way to disrupt the facade: a nihilistic approach to sexual experimentation, a choreographed romantic suicide, a dissent into meaningless acts of violence & vandalism, etc.

Like Boomer said, it’s difficult to discuss this particular film this particular week without relating it to the doom & gloom of the disastrous election that’s just behind us. The idea that as inauguration day approaches in the next two months, this End of the World feeling we’re enduring will become normalized & emotionally dulling is a nightmare, but a realistic one. With all national travesties I’ve witnessed in my lifetime (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, recent years’ recordings of consequence-free police brutality/murder, etc.) there’s always an immediate, media-covered mass mania that’s then followed by a more subtle, muted aftereffect that’s far more damaging to the collective psyche, yet typically ignored as complacency sets in. Last Night pictures an entire society (Toronto, to be specific) with a shared PTSD, a collective mental anguish that expresses itself in a variety of quietly dysfunctional ways. This is far more realistic to me than what an End of the World scenario usually looks like in cinema (consider, for instance, Last Night‘s contemporary, Armageddon) and I think beginning & ending the film within that post-acceptance existential crisis was a brilliant move on McKellar’s part. Trying to capture the initial panic might not have rang nearly as true and I’ve only seen a couple films in the years before or since that approach The End in the same way (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World being the most immediate example that comes to mind). It’s feeling especially likely this week that we might get a chance within our own lifetimes to see exactly how realistic that actually is, so maybe time will tell.

The only thing that McKellar didn’t get exactly right for me (and I’m sensing this same complaint coming from both Boomer & Britnee) is his own performance in the lead role. There’s a lot of 90s genre convention in this movie that I’m totally on board with: the laid back Gen-X vibe, the all-in-one-day temporal setting, the everyone-is-connected vignette structure. I just can’t get past parts of McKellar’s performance as Patrick. He seems to believe that the character he wrote for himself is more likable than he really is, as if his 90s-specific cynicism is something to be celebrated in the face of so many deluded phonies who don’t “get it” the way he does. It’s true that Patrick gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on, but a lot of his dialogue felt like the early efforts of a first-time writer-director, while other, better actors in the film did a much more artful job with the material. It reminded me a lot of the sore-thumb performances Tarantino sometimes delivers in his own films, despite the apparent fact that acting really isn’t his forte. Alli, do you think McKellar’s performance is a detriment to his own movie? I find myself wondering if Last Night (which I should stress that I really enjoyed on the whole) might’ve been improved if he were merely a side character, replaced by another actor, or removed completely, but that might just be my personal desire for Cronenberg, Oh, and Polley to grab more of a spotlight clouding my judgement.

Alli: I didn’t expect the timing of us watching this to be so apt. Sorry for being such a downer, everyone. I actually chose it because I think the countdown makes it a good New Year’s Eve movie, which I guess is still being a downer in a different way.

The first time I watched this movie I was definitely uncomfortable with Patrick as a character. At first he’s just rude and unpleasant. After that, he’s detached and sarcastic. I would say that McKellar’s performance in the role is very stiff and awkward. I think he fell less into the Tarantino and more into a Woody Allen trap, playing the “lovable” asshole. “Lovable” here defined as intolerable. I’m glad he doesn’t stay that way for the whole movie, but I think if more of his tragic story could have been revealed earlier on it would have made me more sympathetic.

A movie with more from Duncan (Cronenberg) would be great. I really do want to know how he ended up getting home even though Sandra was having a hell of a time.  Actually I would be really curious to see this movie with any of the other characters having a bigger role. It’s really compelling to have a movie full of characters where all of them, for me anyway, are interesting. They all have their sad goals and just barely hidden animosity for how unfair it all is. I think one of the things this movie does really well is showing all kinds of coping, which basically boils down to what kind of weird jerk are you in a crisis. I think I understand where Britnee is coming from in that they’re all very narcissistic in their own way, with the exception of Jennifer and her boyfriend, who are just along for the ride.  It’s all about their personal expectations at the end, letting themselves down seems like a bigger concern than imminent death.

Speaking of expectations, something really interesting to me about this movie is the soundtrack. It feels so personal to every character and setting. Everyone is concerned with setting just the right atmosphere. There’s a DJ committed to playing his favorite top 500 songs of all time with no requests, which is an eclectic blend of oldies. Patrick’s parents are continuing the Christmas tunes. Craig has his 70’s funk. Patrick himself seems preoccupied with finding the perfect end of the world music debating on various classical composers. It ends on Pete Seeger’s rendition of “Guantanamera“, which when I looked it up was also used in the Godfather Part II in the New Years scene in Havana.  I don’t know if that was an intentional coincidence with the New Year’s imagery or just an exercise of what is the strangest song you could go out on.

Britnee, what do you make of the soundtrack? Is it all just as big of a disappointment as everything else everyone is doing? I think another thing this movie invites is the question of how we would personally choose to spend our last hours. Do you have  a song in mind?

Britnee: I actually thought the soundtrack was pretty entertaining, especially Craig’s sex music. I’m pretty sure that Craig had the same sexy funk song on repeat for each encounter, and I let out a ton of good laughs each time the song came on. Honestly, Craig is probably my favorite character in the movie, and maybe his own personal “soundtrack” has more to do with this than I thought. I also completely forgot about the radio DJ and his personal music countdown until you mentioned it. That guy was living his best life, even though he only had a couple of hours left of the best life he was living. The film’s soundtrack really does play a bigger role in Last Night than in most films because everyone’s own personal soundtrack really represents their personalities. This would explain why Patrick got on my nerves too. He just couldn’t pick a damn song!

If I could have my end of the world song, I would hands down pick “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush. I would need a song that would make me feel as though the end of the world is not truly the end of everything. The lyrics “I just know that something good is going to happen. And I don’t know when, but just saying it could even make it happen” reminds me of having hope in the most dire situations, and I would definitely need that reassurance while waiting for the world to end.

Boomer, If you had to spend your final hours on Earth with just one character from this movie, who would it be and why?

Boomer: Hands down, I would spend my last day with Craig. I was inordinately excited when I saw Callum “Canada’s Brad Pitt” Rennie’s name in the opening crawl, and found myself a little disappointed that Patrick didn’t take him up on his offer. Regardless of sexual orientation, who could turn down an end of days romp in the hay with 1998 vintage Rennie? I certainly couldn’t. On a less shallow note, I think that Donna and I would have a good time together as the curtain fell on our world. Between her unrestrained dancing to the music on the radio (more on that in a moment), her secret drinking (in moderation) and the relative reasonableness of her final desires (knock shit off desks, get plowed), she seems like an agreeable and pleasant person to know, end of the world or not. I also can’t stop thinking about Jessica Booker’s Rose: her restrained indignation about people’s misplaced priorities and her resignation to spending her last hours with a family to which she doesn’t technically belong, watching their home movies. You can be my granny anytime, Rose.

Speaking of music, I appreciate this discussion pointing out how each person approaches the preparation of a soundtrack for the end of the world; what should be a relatively effortless task is treated by various characters with varying degrees of solemnity and gravitas. It’s a lot easier to make a playlist that suits your mood and activities in 2016 than it was in 1998, but I don’t think that I’d find it any easier to choose the musical arrangement of my transcendence to oblivion with Spotify or Grooveshark than it would be with a stack of CDs or records (other than to say I would definitely not be in attendance at Menzies’s show). I find myself in disagreement with Britnee again, however (why is this movie tearing us apart?!); I didn’t care for the soundtrack overall. As a longtime DJ at KNWD and KLSU and former Chief Announcer at the latter, I appreciate the prominence of the unseen man whose voice touches different scenes. I won’t deny that a bittersweet smile broke across my face when he threw his playlog to the wind and broadcast what he wanted, but the movie truly revealed the narrowness of its budget when it came to the music selection. The final song was fine, given the way that it was woven into the narrative, but I would think that I’d recognize more than one or two tracks on the countdown of the “greatest songs of all time.”

To backtrack a little to our nihilism in the face of the gestating sea-to-shining-sea fascist regime, I’ve always prided myself on my belief that my worldview would more or less mirror Patrick’s: quiet acceptance of the end. When my friends would compare plans to bug out in the face of viral epidemics, bunker down against the nuclear song of fire and ice, or imagine themselves as the one who fought off a crazy with an assault rifle, I never wanted to participate; I instead pointed out that the majority of people would die in the first wave and that I accepted without complaint that I would be one of them. Who knows where any of us will be a year from now (history tells us that they come for artists, writers, and teachers first, and the registry for the last of these is already slouching toward Megiddo, DC, waiting to be born), but I can say that I never expected that the end would come with whispery goose-stepping past the Lincoln Memorial and Tila Tequila declaring “sig heil.” I’ve been less self-assured of late. Like Britnee, I am afraid: afraid for myself, afraid for my Muslim neighbors, afraid for every person with flesh that errs on the far side of ochre, afraid for my queer brothers and sisters, afraid of a bleak future that extends to the horizon and afraid of how far that future might extend beyond the rim of my sight. All I know is that I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of Patrick’s final scene in recent days: “ln a way, l feel kind of privileged. I mean, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened, and we’re gonna be there. I mean, no one was there to witness the beginning, but we’re gonna be there at the end.”

Brandon, it seems I’ve gone a little maudlin, although no more so than is called for in these dark days, I’m afraid. Let me ask: which character’s final moments do you feel best reflect how you would imagine you’d face your last day? Whose final moments resonate with you most, on a personal level?

Brandon: It’s much easier for me to answer that question than I’d care to admit, since I’ve already thought about it a lot. Like Boomer, I always pictured myself just sort of accepting immediate demise in a Doomsday scenario. I’m deeply creeped out by “doomsday preppers” who stockpile weapons & escape plans for a possible Apocalypse, since it seems like they’re actually looking forward to humanity’s final moments in an exceedingly unseemly way (with John Goodman’s recent performance as a prepper type in 10 Cloverfield Lane being a great illustration of what I mean by that). My own final day in a planned-ahead-of-time Apocalypse would likely fall on one of the two sides of Patrick’s family, depending on what kind of endgame scenario we’re talking about. If we’re talking a real life Trumpian death by nuclear holocaust (or whatever other kind of holocaust our president-elect could easily trigger in office), I’d probably go out like Patrick’s parents. I’d spend my final hours glumly going through my things, eating a nice meal with loved ones, and (although I don’t particularly care about Christmas) staging one final run-through of a favorite holiday or activity: Halloween, Mardi Gras, my birthday, a film marathon, something like that. On the other hand, if we’re talking a natural or supernatural event like the one hinted at in Last Night, a demise far outside humanity’s control, I’d like to think I’d go out like Patrick’s sister, Jennifer, played by Sarah Polley. I’d love to spend my final minutes strapping on a stupid party hat, raising a bottle of champagne to the soon-to-disappear sky, and yelling drunkenly with a bunch of other doomed idiots celebrating their own final moments on this garbage planet. There’s a the-band-keeps-playing-as-the-ship-sinks vibe to that mentality that I’ve always closely identified with (which is probably why one last Mardi Gras ranks so high on my list of wishes & wants).

Speaking of that partying until the bitter end mentality, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite gag of the entire film in this conversation. There’s a very brief scene in which a news report details the world’s largest guitar jam taking place in humanity’s hour of crisis. The song the doomed souls decide to play & sing together? Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” one of the most inane pop songs I could imagine given the severity of the setting and, like Boomer pointed out, one of the only songs of any cultural significance the film shelled out money for. We’ve been pretty dour as we talk over this film’s themes & tone, which is to be expected given the total shit show 2016 has been on the whole and the imminent doom we’re staring down ourselves, but it’d be a shame if we didn’t make it clear that it’s successfully funny as a comedy as well. Although understandably bleak, Last Night is consistently humorous throughout and there’s a brilliance to the brevity of that “Taking Care of Business” gag that sums up the believable way the film portrays mass mania in the face of humanity’s impending extinction.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: I think it’s worth repeating that although this film was framed and marketed as a Y2K movie, it doesn’t need or rely on that cultural context for longevity in its significance. Even if he wasn’t particularly smart about casting himself as the lead role, McKellar was dead on in completely avoiding direct mention of the machinations of the Apocalypse in the story and instead focusing on humanity’s reaction to the crisis. Besides straining the limitations of the budget, any kind of asteroid or Y2K bug or killer spiders or what have you threatening the world might’ve reduced Last Night to a novelty (again, just look to Michael Bay’s Armageddon for context there). By avoiding the narrative gratification of knowing exactly what’s going on globally and instead focusing on the small details of interpersonal drama within that crisis, McKellar made something a lot more significant and potentially timeless, which is a funny thing to say about a work that feels so Gen-X 90s in its resigned shrug of a tone.

Britnee: Last Night and the conversation we had about the movie has made me realize that I am super scared about the end of the world. I think that may be why I didn’t vibe well with the movie. I wasn’t able to connect with any character because no one was screaming and freaking out like I would have been. If no one hears from me for a few weeks, please check for me in my closet. I’ll probably be in the fetal position in the corner.

Boomer: I don’t know what song I would choose to be my doomsday knell, but I can tell you that last week at karaoke there was only one song on my mind: the late Leonard’s “Everybody Knows.” It seemed the most apropos (well, actually, “Democracy” seemed most suited for the situation, but I wasn’t prepared to be on stage for eight straight minutes): “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows.”

Alli: It’s interesting to be living in a time that we sort of have to think about the end of it all. It’s also interesting to watch a quiet, personal take. While we’re not exactly in the same circumstances as Patrick and co, Last Night feels eerily relevant. I guess while we’re making plans and if we’re just looking at the current situation, I think I have to regretfully inform everyone that I’d be joining in with the hooligans and smashing stuff up. I need a good primal scream and to smash some things.  If we’re talking about a natural event though, I think I’d have a big party and make a lot of food for anyone who wants to come.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2016
February: Brandon presents Society (1992)

-The Swampflix Crew

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5 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Last Night (1999)

  1. Pingback: Last Night (1999)’s Studio Comedy Equivalent in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Armageddon (1998) Doesn’t Contrast the Small Scale Apocalypse Narrative of Last Night (1999), It Explodes It | Swampflix

  3. Pingback: Armageddon (1998) Doesn’t Contrast the Small Scale Apocalypse Narrative of Last Night (1999), It Explodes It | Swampflix

  4. Pingback: Cronenberg, Luxury Cars, and the End of the World | Swampflix

  5. Pingback: Movie of the Month: Last Night (1999) – state street press

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