SPECIAL REVIEW: Margaret (2011)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

****

When writing about Margaret, it’s probably worth noting at the beginning that there is no actual character named Margaret in the film. The title is a reference to the poem ‘Spring and Fall: To A Young Child’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is a bleak reassurance to a child of the fragility of nature and the omnipotence of death; it comes to us all, a fact that the lead in Margaret has shoved in her face. We’re going on a personal quest here, people; hold your breath as we take the dive.

The journey that 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) undertakes in Margaret is mirrored and eclipsed by that undertaken by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan to get the film released. The film was shot in New York in 2005, but then came the post-production process. It’s a long and complicated tale, but it boils down to Lonergan, his financiers and Fox Searchlight getting litigious over the editing process (Lonergan’s original cut was over three hours). In 2009, Fox Searchlight actually declared the film ‘unreleasable’, and the lawsuits went on. Eventually, a finished cut was declared and released in September 2011. It debuted on one (1!) screen at the London Odeon but was far and away the highest-grossing film on a per-screen basis upon release. Despite this, Margaret has grossed less than $50,000 back from a $14 million budget. Despite a vehement push by some critics (The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calls it “mysteriously, mesmerically, operatically compelling”), the post-production wrangles and bungled release has rendered Margaret an cautionary footnote in the annals of Hollywood. After a viewing, it’s clear that Margaret’s ‘also-ran’ status was all but unavoidable, but also undeserved and unreflective of what bubbles ‘neath the cruel surface and all the talk of lawsuits. It’s a combative piece, eschewing easy options such as likeability and clear emotions, and offering stories and people you’d perhaps not like to see or hear.

Anna Paquin has played her share of precocious young madams, but Lisa Cohen outdoes them all. Lisa is confident, opinionated and very intelligent, but still lacking in maturity and emotional restraint. In other words, she’s a teenager. A product of a good private school and an Upper East Side upbringing, Lisa dabbles in sex and drugs and is distant from her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), whilst her father (director Kenneth Lonergan) is literally distant from them both, having separated and moved to California. At the apex of immaturity, this hot house flower has her world turned upside-down when she witnesses a bus running over a pedestrian, Monica (Allison Janney), an accident Lisa may have caused. Monica dies in Lisa’s arms, and from this point Margaret becomes less a portrait of spoilt little rich kids and more of a search for definition.

Lisa has all she wants, but Monica brings a sense of moral upstanding to Lisa’s otherwise self-interested world. The bus driver, Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), is getting away scot free, and Lisa aims to have him punished for his actions. It’s a challenging dichotomy for an audience whose emotions are usually clearly signposted in post-9/11 New York film; Lisa wants justice for Monica, but it stems from the fact that she feels guilty and wants Maretti to feel the same guilt as she does. This is moral relativity at its most biased, but then Lisa is just one of a rogues’ gallery worth of shitty characters. Maretti appears to have no guilt, Joan can be as emotionally immature as her daughter and Monica’s best friend and executor Emily (Jeannie Berlin) is an honest-but-bitter pill. All are surrounded by smooth talkers (Joan starts dating a smooth Columbian businessman, played by Jean Reno) and lawyers. Sartre’s analysis of other people springs to mind. Ironically, probably the only character that can’t be judged in some way is Monica, and that’s mostly by virtue of the fact she dies shortly after appearing onscreen! Lisa’s frequent use of the c-word may stem from the fact many of the people here are plain c**ts.

Margaret is populated by horrible people, and yet is so interestingly empathetic that it manages to paper over most of the problems that plague it. Like its teenage protagonist, Margaret is immensely self-confident, wittily intelligent and frequently over-dramatic. This latter comment is not intended as a criticism; in fact, considering the sordid and contemptuous actions of so many characters, a little drama helps introduce emotion and offer a little perspective. Should Lisa report what she knows about Maretti to the bus company’s investigators? She’ll do Monica justice, but get Maretti fired and leave his family with no income. Lisa’s decisions have the potential to split an audience, and that’s what seemed to have scared the distributors and marketers. Heaven forbid the matinée crowd might not be sure what to think about someone onscreen! As we see Lisa have her rather impersonal first sexual encounter with stoner Paul (Kieran Culkin), we feel voyeuristic but have to remind ourselves this is our heroine. Had we not seen that scene, would we think any less of her?

Lonergan offers us something special indeed: a lesson in context. Margaret is an acknowledgement of the narrow scope of cinematic diegesis. As the preparations for the bus company’s trial continue to frustrate, Lisa over-reacts and Emily is forced to remind her that she (Emily) is not a side player in the drama of Lisa’s life. Margaret is not an ensemble piece in the vein of Magnolia, but many supporting characters feel more fleshed out than most other dramas might allow them to. It helps that some characters are played by big names such as Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick (as Lisa’s English teacher) and Matt Damon (as Lisa’s Geometry teacher). Others are just fleshed out through great writing and performances (Joan benefits especially here, and Smith-Cameron is excellent). We care more than we otherwise would about Lisa because we are interested in those around her and they care about her.

Having pointed out the refreshment offered by Margaret, it seems a pity to point out some problems, but they are there. At 150 minutes, it could test patience. This cut may have been edited by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (and approved by Lonergan), but Margaret may be a true rarity: a film with too many ideas to juggle at once! This may explain why some characters, for all their development, get dropped at random points and picked up in others. Come the final reel, some of the hard work done by Lonergan starts to fall apart, and some of the side roles do begin to feel like cyphers, despite their protestations. This cut may have Lonergan’s blessing, but should the director’s cut of Margaret ever see the light of day, it may well be miraculous. As it is, Margaret is a testament to a hobbled directorial ambition, and a stylish challenge to a mindset that has been spoon-fed emotionality and comforted by bland convention.

Review: Dead Ringers (1988)

Director: David Cronenberg

*****

The finest horror directors know that the way to disturb and affect an audience is to take the everyday and the reliable and mutate them into something quite different. David Cronenberg is one such director, and Dead Ringers mutates notions of medical professionalism, bodily perfection and sibling rivalry into something wondrous to behold; a disturbing but touching tragedy of quasi-Shakesperian proportions.

Jeremy Irons has had many roles in bigger films, but few of his films are as good as Dead Ringers and few of his performances are as magnificent as the one(s) he gives here. In the dual role of twin gynaecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, there is a broad spectrum of characteristics, emotions and bizarre qualities on display, the ideal for any serious actor. Though two distinct bodies, these two are inseparable. They share ideas, tastes and desires, both material and erotic. Smooth Elliot is the seducer and, through a duplicitous switcheroo, allows the shy Beverly to get some of the action. It is this relationship, this slimy symbiosis, that allows them to function. When a patient, TV actress Claire (a stark and distant Geneviève Bujold), arrives with three cervixes and a desire for children, the twins’ reactions differ for once. Elliot want his way with her, but Beverly finds himself falling for her, threatening the twins’ very reality. Despite the creepiness of this relationship (not helped by Irons’ dulcet tones), this is Cronenberg at his most restrained, at least visually. There’s no gooey mutations or morphings (one nightmare aside), just the glances and exasperations of the twins and their bodily fascinations. In one scene, Beverly makes love to Claire tenderly, yet she’s tied to the bed with surgical tubing. Elliot’s influence is ever present and visible, and vice versa.

Irons is mesmerising, and he must be no less considering he’s in practically every scene of the film. He switches between the slick Elly and the retiring Bev with immense ease. In some scenes, it’s hard to tell them apart, just as the story demands. Even at the emotional heights of this crisis, the two seem interchangeable. Cronenberg and Norman Snider’s script (adapted from a book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland) never lapses either into farce or into complete body horror. This is first and foremost a tragedy. Bev and Elly depend on one another to an extent beyond fraternal love. Whether it’s a crippling lack of social definition beyond each other, or a genuinely psychotic fixation is left to the audiences’ minds. At one point, they tell each other the story of the original ‘Siamese twins’, Chang and Eng. Like those two, the separation of Bev from Elly could prove fatal.

Cronenberg shoots proceedings in darkened labs and sterile Toronto apartment blocks; considering the coldness of these settings, it makes the unfolding sadness all the more poignant. Moments of disturbing behaviour and the twins’ world collapsing around them are anchored by Irons’ performance and a beautifully understated score by Howard Shore. As the twins’ dependence on each other becomes more and more apparent, events build to a climax of unexpected empathy that you struggle to think of a moment in all of Cronenberg’s work to match it. Dead Ringers is undeniable Cronenbergian, but transcends the implications of that term to be a recognizably tragic masterpiece.

Review: The Woman In Black (2012)

Director: James Watkins

***

In one of his early shows, Eddie Izzard has a skit about horror film clichés. He talks about the outsiders entering a village, the villagers not trusting the new arrivals, their coach driver who’s a monster and the haunted castle which looks like “Hell on toast” whilst children’s choirs haunt the soundscape. He may well have been talking about The Woman In Black, except that Daniel Radcliffe isn’t much like James Mason.

The relaunch of Hammer Studios in 2008 was welcomed with delight by horror fanboys. Hammer is synonymous with cheesy-yet-creepy British-grown horror. The Woman In Black is the most Hammer-esque of their new productions. Centering on young widower lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), The Woman In Black is unashamedly old-fashioned in its setting and its storytelling. Kipps arrives in a remote village in Northern England to sort the affairs of a recently desceased client, Mrs. Drablow. Thus, the tortured outsider Kipps arrives to a distrusting village and Eel Marsh House, not so much “Hell on toast” as “Limbo in Broth”, set as it is on an islet frequently cut off from the mainland by the rising tide.The village is beset by the frequent and apparent accidental deaths of young children, and it’s not long before Kipps discovers the children’s deaths may have something to do with another former resident of the house, the ‘woman in black’. Susan Hill’s source novel was a throwback to older Victorian horror, and The Woman In Black is as much of a blast from the past. It’ll be a shock to many audiences that there’s so little bloodshed onscreen. Without guts and bloody torrents to distract from the scares, Radcliffe investigates the house with the kind of curious abandon reserved for idiots who are asking for whatever befalls them. He steps out of Hogwarts’ shadow with a convincing performance as Kipps, a steady guide through the grim secrets of Eel Marsh House. He’s backed up by a good supporting cast, including Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer as a wealthy couple who also fell victim to the village epidemic of child deaths.

The lack of bloodshed is a gutsy (pardon the pun) move on the part of director James Watkins (Eden Lake). He may alienate audiences more attuned to full-on gore, but will delight the crowds who screamed at the Hammer Horrors of old. The Woman In Black has a healthy number of jump scares, whilst building a thick fog-covered atmosphere in between. Jane Goldman’s script keeps the eerie plot of Hill’s tome in place, though the changed ending may bend some fan noses out of joint. It may be clichéd and it may be predictible, but The Woman Is Black is scary and it is Hammer, and horror fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Review: Star Wars, Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

Director: George Lucas

**

Everyone loves a universal hate figure. Society coalesces surprisingly well around a common figure of contempt. Jar Jar Binks is one such figure, and arguments against The Phantom Menace centred first and foremost around the fact that George Lucas found a need for this jibbering and racially insensitive frog abortion to exist. Well, guess what? He’s back! In three dimensions!

The addition of 3D to the first episode of the Star Wars saga was never going to heal the scars inflicted upon many sci-fi nerds by the prequels. Neither the passage of time (it’s been 13 years since the initial release) or the addition of 3D makes Jar Jar more appealing or makes Jake Lloyd any less annoying. He’s the moppet playing Anakin Skywalker, the boy who would grow up to be the biggest badass in the universe, Darth Vader. A young slave on the planet of Tattooine, he’s discovered by Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, lending some much needed dignity to this picture) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, doing a terrible Alec Guinness impersonation and sporting an even worse mullet). Cue a convoluted plot to get the boy out of slavery and put him on the path to becoming a Jedi. As annoying as the kid is, hindsight is a wonderful thing; next to Hayden Christensen, he’s John bloody Gielgud. Meanwhile, the planet of Naboo (ruled by Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala) is under attack from the Federation in a dispute over tax (Tax in 3D? The kids’ll love that!) and the Senate is squabbling over the appropriate response. Sadly, Han Solo won’t be born for another few decades; wisecracks and fun are out, while solemnity and posturing are in. Oh, joy.

It’s unlikely the passage of time will make you care any more about intergalactic politics or the taxing of trade routes to Naboo. However, if you can look past claims that “Jar Jar raped my childhood”, there’s a lot to like in The Phantom Menace, at least in the broadest blockbuster terms. The central Pod Race (part of the bet to free Anakin) is still thrilling, the visuals are still great (as is John Williams’ score), and Darth Maul is still a great villain. His lightsabre duel with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is still one of the best scenes in the series, and the 3D makes it all the more dazzling. Still, Maul and pretty scenery are not enough to compensate for Jake Lloyd, a dull Portman, her ridiculous costumes, the convoluted plot, virgin births, racist alien design, the kiddy-friendly tone, all that midichlorian bullshit or Jar Jar bloody Binks! Star Wars used to combine fun with genuine wonder. The Phantom Menace is sadly lacking in that sense of worthy awe, and all the 3D in the world can’t fix that.

Review: Carnage (2011)

Director: Roman Polanski

***

After two young boys fight in a schoolyard brawl, and one injures the other, the two sets of parents meet to discuss what happened and to rectify matters. The only problem is they end up getting into a nasty verbal brawl and prove themselves to be as childish as their offspring. Welcome to Carnage, a hilarious-but-smug little flick that isn’t quite as clever as it might think.

The parents of the children being childish?! Oh, how very clever! Like her stage play ‘Le Dieu de Carnage’, Yazmine Reza’s screenplay centres on the plush New York apartment of the headstrong Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly). They host power couple Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) after their sons fight, but initial niceties and servings of peach cobbler give way to insults and snipes being regurgitated like so much gone-off cobbler. Carnage is brilliantly and inescapably funny. Try not to titter every time Alan’s cellphone goes off and he must go discuss business in a corner. The aforementioned dessert ends up causing the best scene of projectile vomiting since Terry Jones ingested a “waffer-theen mint”. As whiskeys are passed round and indignant noses are bent out of shape, all pretense goes out the window and all four characters are forced to acknowledge their submission to the ‘god of Carnage’. As the only four characters in the entire film, the leads are uniformly excellent. Foster’s snippy, Reilly’s blustery, Winslet is boorish, Waltz is cynical and they all compliment each other wonderfully.

Reza adapts her stage play for the screen with Polanski, and it touches on a lot of issues; however, it can’t help but seem like an exercise in farce before devolving into a battle-of-the-sexes power play. There’s not a lot new to learn from Carnage; people are beastly, women and men differ, and we can’t change that, whoop-de-do. Carnage is the closest the four leads can come to starring in a play without actually getting on stage, so it makes sense that Carnage plays to their acting instincts. It’s just a pity that that ‘staginess’ translates into the direction. On stage, it makes sense that Alan and Nancy never get to leave the apartment but, watching them on the big screen you’ll scream at them just to get up and leave! As well as that, these people seem to get drunk very quickly. The constrained setting draws attention to itself frequently, and Polanski never manages to overcome that problem. He’s lucky that he has a hilarious script and able performers to work with, because that’s all Carnage has going for it. Watching Carnage, you are guaranteed to laugh. Enjoy watching the actors be ridiculous; just don’t think too much about what they’re saying. You just may end up feeling patronized.

Review: Young Adult (2011)

Director: Jason Reitman

****

We all think we know someone like Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron); attractive, painfully svelte, heavily made-up and contemptuous. This is the snobby queen bitch that ruled the roost in every high school, dated the jocks and hated just about everyone. Guess what? She never changed.

Young Adult is a horror film in comedy’s clothing. Mavis is simply a horrible person who induces cringes wherever she goes. Despite a job writing for a popular series of teenage novels, it seems the now mid-30s Mavis never grew up. She wears clothes aimed at girls half her age, has Diet Coke for breakfast and carries her little pomeranian dog (named Dolce) in her handbag. This combination is not pleasant, but there has to be some piece of functioning humanity inside that blonde head, right? Alas, insanity seems to have taken over when she resolves to go back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to win back her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) after he invites her to a party for his newborn daughter. ‘Yikes’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

Director Jason Reitman has explored some unlikeable people in the past (think Aaron Eckhart in Thank You For Smoking), and he and writer Diablo Cody scored a hit with another lackadaisical young lady, Juno. However, Mavis is a different beast altogether. Her drunkard and snide ways are just utterly unlikeable, and Young Adult is immensely brave for focusing on such a grating character. Yet even someone like Mavis must have a conscience, and hers comes in the form of Patton Oswalt. Oswalt, a US comedy stalwart for many years, is a delight in the role of Matt Freehauf, a former classmate of Mavis’ who is crippled following a severe assault back in high school. Mavis runs into Matt and they immediately click over a fondness for whiskey and a strange mutual fascination. He has a conscience, and she has a life beyond Mercury. As odd as it seems, Mavis and Matt compliment each other beautifully.

Theron has a blast as the super-bitch whilst keeping her sympathetic (if not likeable), whilst Oswalt gets laughs and maintains dignity without milking his character’s disability. As events unfold, Mavis’ behaviour gets more erratic and we start to fear she may actually have mental problems. Cody’s script is biting in its dialogue and sometimes cruel in its plotting, whilst Reitman’s camera never looks away. Audiences might though; for all the laughs (and there are many), Young Adult will mostly induce winces and agape mouths. Young Adult’s blacker-than-black style will turn some off, no question. Go with it, however, and Young Adult delivers laughs aplenty. If they are at Mavis’ expense, she’s got no-one to blame but herself.

Review: Chronicle (2012)

Director: Josh Trank

****

Giving gimmicks a new lease of life is not an easy thing to pull off. The ‘found footage’ trend, successfully exploited in the likes of The Blair Witch Project and [REC], seems to have been used exclusively for the benefit of horror. Chronicle takes the camera out of the haunted house and puts it in the hands of teenagers with superpowers. Brace yourselves; moody teenagers are already destructive enough without the aid of telekinesis.

The golden rule of found footage flicks is to leave as much unexplained as possible. When three teenage boys investigate a strange crater that has suddenly appeared in the ground, we know nothing about how it came to be, or about the strange glowing rock inside the crater that bestows telekinetic powers on Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan). We don’t need to know; if the characters can’t explain why they can suddenly move objects with their minds, why should we? We can wonder what we’d do with superpowers, but it’s not all that likely we’d put on capes and become superheroes. Indeed, Chronicle is best described as a superhero movie, but without much heroism. Andrew is the one with the movie camera, initially bought to chart his everyday life as an awkward and ostracized teen with a miserable home life (Dad’s a drunk and Mom’s got cancer). Chronicle doesn’t sugar-coat anything; the new powers don’t immediately improve these guys’ lives. Initially, pranks are pulled and experiences are had, but superpowers can’t work against inevitability.

It’s this sense of tragic inevitability that elevate Chronicle from a gimmick to a film of note. The intimacy of Andrew’s handheld camera allows us to share in the guys’ highs as they try out their powers, and makes the inevitable comedown all the more poignant. All three leads are very likable; DeHaan is particularly good, making us believe in both his super powers and his tragedy. Chronicle is the debut feature of director Josh Trank, and he does an excellent job of capturing both action and emotion. He doesn’t limit himself to just Andrew’s camera’s POV; security cameras and mobile phones play a particular role in the final act, as the boys’ powers threaten their lives and their hometown of Seattle. Both Trank and screenwriter Max ‘son of John’ Landis keep the focus on the boys, even when things start exploding all around them.

Ultimately, Chronicle isn’t the shake-up of the superhero genre it purports to be; it’s a different take on it, and a more human take at that. For all the hype superhero movies get, we rarely see the effects such superpowers would have on a typical person. For people with the ability to do almost anything, we can’t help but find ourselves pitying the heroes of Chronicle.