REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2011
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
First, there is no character named Margaret. This throws most viewers (indeed, most critics) off from the outset. The title is taken from the poem, “Spring and Fall” (1880) by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is read aloud in a high school English class. The teacher (Matthew Broderick) simply presents the poem, we catch glimpses of our protagonist, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) in her desk, and as soon as he’s finished, the scene is over. There is no narrative purpose to the scene. However, it encapsulates the film’s primary theme – not just coming into maturity per se, but the eventual dulling of youthful emotion into tempered responses that are at once more jaded and more socially useful. (“Ah! As the heart grows older / it will come to such sights colder”) The film, by tracing the journey of its very self-involved central character, explores the problem of how we process the world outside of us, whether we treat it as a photosensitive plate for our narcissism or actually engage it on its own terms.
Although Margaret is a film that cuts a broad swath through a great many things, it is chiefly a miniature coming-of-age story about Lisa, whose frustrations and precocity finds a laser-sharp focal point when she witnesses (or, in her mind, indirectly causes) a horrible bus accident. The driver (Mark Ruffalo) runs a red light, mowing down a stranger (Allison Janney) in the crosswalk. Lisa holds her while she dies. The accident comes to obsess Lisa, as she insinuates herself into the life of Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the victim’s best friend, with the two of them trying to sue the New York MTA and Lisa trying to hold the driver personally responsible. The sprawling quality and disjointed compositional mode that characterizes Margaret’s first half tends to settle down into a highly subjective semi-procedural in the second, focused on Lisa’s quest for justice. (I must admit, to my mind this made the film far less interesting. I’m curious to see if the director’s cut will change this regrettable narrowing of emphasis.) But Lonergan keeps even this catastrophic event and its aftermath in dialogue with Margaret’s larger theme of innocence and experience, solipsism and sociality. As Emily scolds Lisa, in one of the film’s pivotal moments, “this isn’t an opera. And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life.”
Margaret is a film that thinks laterally. For example, in Hopkins’ poem, the meter results in the girl’s name being pronounced “mar-guh-RETTE.” And so, inferentially, the title of the film is officially pronounced this way too. Almost nobody pronounces it this way, but a few sticklers have insisted on doing so. In this way, Lonergan has built a problem into the very form of his film that is addressed explicitly elsewhere in the diegesis. Lisa’s mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) is a New York actress having some success with her latest comedy. (From what Lonergan shows us, it looks like a sub-Mamet exercise in office screwball.) She has begun dating Ramon (Jean Reno), a wealthy South American telecom businessman. Ramon, an operaphile, takes Joan (a neophyte) to the Met to see Bellini’s Norma. At the end, someone shouts, “Brava! Brava! Bravi!” On the way home, Joan asks Ramon if he doesn’t consider this behavior a bit pretentious. Yes, it’s “correct,” as Ramon icily points out (“bravo” is male, “brava” female,” “bravi” plural), but in an American context, isn’t the guy just being a bit of a show-off? And what does any of this have to do with anything?
That’s just it – Margaret operates like a broad canvas that contains elements that are in some senses just “there” because the characters engaging with them are alive and thinking and processing things. (People who favor the “economy” of three-act storytelling will find Margaret hopelessly baggy and digressive, if not outright inept.) But at the same time, Lonergan includes them because, once they enter his work of art, they become ineluctably subject to the dominant thinking, the reigning theses, of the work itself. (For instance, isn’t Joan just dealing with her own insecurity by identifying overcompensation in another?) If we are all potentially trapped within our own subject positions, seeing everything and everybody through the lens of our own personal narrative, doesn’t narrative film function the same way? Can we truly allow Lonergan to drop in bits of “unrelated” business – as life tends to do – or does the cognitive process of watching, and the filmmaker’s process of scripting and editing, condemn all elements to some grand scheme? Or, as per those critics who decried Margaret as slack or overly ambitious, if elements truly “don’t fit,” will we simply ignore or discard them?
To make matters somewhat more difficult for Lonergan, he is not a filmmaker who exactly waves the freak flag of postmodern meta-cinematic inquiry. Many of the problematics I tried to detail above are, in their own fashion, examined in Margaret with a rigor similar to that found in, say, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, to say nothing of Fellini’s 8 ½. But for the most part Margaret plays in a low-key, realist register, furled in a matte-finish, functional cinematography that depicts a visually uninflected Upper West Side familiar from mid-period Woody Allen or all-period Paul Mazursky. Margaret is a “screenwriter’s film,” at least on its face, very much like Lonergan's debut You Can Count on Me. It’s only through very careful viewing that Lonergan’s compositional schemes begin to surface. Long shots of the Manhattan skyline, or slow, lengthy shots of New Yorkers moving through the streets in slow motion, are accompanied by Nico Muhly’s subtle orchestral score. These passages, which initially seem like transitional afterthoughts, are crucial to Margaret’s overall shape. Whereas most art films these days privilege the visual over the auditory, Lonergan’s film is organized according to musical rather than painterly principles. When Lisa, hothead that she is, achieves one of her many emotional crescendos, Lonergan’s city passages both provide a cool-down period and re-insert her overly asserted singularity into the total fabric of life, the world that both caresses her and does not, that cannot know she is there. [This review is excerpted from a longer essay on Margaret originally published in German, in Cargo #14. The longer piece addresss the "#teammargaret" phenomenon, and can be found in English elsewhere on The Academic Hack.]
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, U.K. / France / Germany)
I didn't go into nearly as much depth as I could have when I reviewed TTSS for the Nashville Scene. (For once, I think I cut my poor editor Jim Ridley a break and came in at the proper word length, or close to it. But this is a film I'd like to see again sometime soon. I am particularly keen to investigate Mike D'Angelo's claim that the filmmaking is incompetent, and that shots are so haphazardly edited that no coherent sense of space ever emerges. I certainly didn't witness this, but I have been known to get wrapped up in other cinematic elements, missing the one that's bopping me in the head with its umbrella. If I get to see it again, I'll report back.
The Mill & The Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland / Sweden)
I liked this film, and I honestly didn't know why it didn't get a little more play in the year-end polling and such. I'm also finding myself wondering whether Majewski is a "forgotten master," his prodigious output largely forgotten, or one of these world cinema also-rans who has achieved a stature about equivlent to his capabilities. As it happens, a whole mess of Majewski's back catalogue is now out (and "up"), so I am anxious for "further research." Also, to those who chortled at the idea of Rutger Hauer playing Pieter Breugel, joke's on you. Majewski was clearly indulging in a bit of stunt casting, which sounds like a bad thing but can often provide a useful Brechtian frisson (cf. Albert Brooks in Drive). But Hauer provides something different, a dash of sad, weatherbeaten intellectual dignity, the quiet mien of a visual thinker, and a touch of unspoken frustration that God (or whomever) is allowing men to be impaled on spikes. It's a lovely performance. Here's my Nashville Scene piece.
Posthaste Perennial Pattern (Jodie Mack) [v/s]
Two Years At Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K.)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France / Belgium)
What a difference a few weeks can make! Now, for a change, I have a review, out there and on the record, of this year's Best Picture winner. Here's my Cinema Scope review. In it, I try to explain why I think The Artist is not exactly painful, but neither is it a major (or minor, really) work of enduring cinematic art. Also, why I have no soul, hate the cinema, clearly believe that adorable little dogs like Uggie should be shot and strung up in playgrounds, and why despite years of therapy, I just can't stop going up to little bitty kids in the park and telling them Santa Claus doesn't exist. Here's my Cinema Scope piece.
The Sitter (David Gordon Green)
With all due respect, this movie was garbage. (Although it sounds like Your Highness might be, as they say, a grower. Ha! "Grower," geddit?) Here's my short Nashville piece. Oh, and I will now spoil the only funny line in The Sitter: "Dude, you're queer as a football bat." (You're welcome.)
New Year's Eve (Garry Marshall)
Question: which luckless intern get the unfortunate job of cleaning Hilary Swank's stable? Do she and Sarah Jessica Parker fight over sugar cubes, or are there enough feedback treats to go around? Here's my capsule for Nashville. Whinny whinny neigh.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, U.K. / France / Germany)
As utterly wrongheaded as this film, on every conceivable aesthetic and political level, I must admit upon seeing it again that it has.... its moments? Not the righr word, but I suppose it's just not wise to completely discount Ramsay's engagement with the plastics of cinema. Bottom line: I figured I'd trash this film, and wound up (I hope) producing something that is somewhat evenhanded. Lynne Ramsay is a great artist. Kevin just doesn't evince that. My take, from the Nashville Scene.