Moriarty Struggles To Catch Up On Reviews! MARGOT! COMPASS! DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY!
Published at: Dec. 21, 2007, 6:18 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Holy crap. I think I’m finished. Well, maybe not finished finished. There are still films I need to see this year, and if I can figure out a way to see those, I will. But I’ve attended my last press screening for 2007. Last night, I saw WALK HARD in Century City. Earlier in the day, I saw Woody Allen’s latest, CASSANDRA’S DREAM. I’ve been seeing screenings all week, including U2-3D (mind-boggling), RAMBO (I’m completely embargoed), and THE BUCKET LIST (pretty much exactly what you think it’s going to be). And since getting back from BNAT, it’s been two movies a day at least, all in an effort to wrap the year up completely.
I’m already peeking into 2008, too. Like I said, I saw RAMBO and U2-3D, and a few weeks back, I saw a very, very rough cut of an unnamed October release that has the potential to be truly magical. I love seeing things rough. I love watching a film come into focus. For example, this past weekend, the producer on my next film came over and showed me POOL BOYS, the last film he finished. When he showed up, he was excited and nervous. I love it when people are at that stage with a film... where they feel like they’ve figured it out, and it’s come into focus finally. He’d just locked a final cut of it, and he wanted an opinion, so he showed it to me, my co-writer, and another friend. Warren was the producer of AMERICAN PIE and FINAL DESTINATION, so he certainly has had his fair share of successful high-concept low-budget movies. His new one is the AMERICAN PIE version of RISKY BUSINESS, and I assume once he starts showing it to distributors, he’s going to quickly find a home for it. It was interesting seeing it this early, before he’s shown it to anyone, and it’ll be fun to wait and see which distributor ends up turning it into an cheap and easy slam-dunk next year.
So from now till 2008, all I have left to do is write, write, write. I’ve got a number of reviews that I didn’t file as soon as I saw the films for one reason or another, and I feel like I need to just bull through and catch up before I really start wrapping up my writing about 2007. I’ll say this much... it’s been dizzying trying to finish seeing everything in the last few weeks, but it’s been deeply rewarding because of how much quality work there is playing in theaters right now. What a great time to go to the movies.
That’s not to say I love everything that’s out. You can see what my favorite films of the year so far are if you’re curious. There are certainly some things that I found to be more of a mixed bag. For example...
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Here’s a great example of a movie that I sort of liked but didn’t quite love. Then again, I didn’t lose my mind over THE SQUID & THE WHALE to the same extent as everyone else, either. I think with Noah Baumbach films, I end up thinking they’re good. Interesting. Solid, but unspectacular. And I think I’ve finally figured out why it is that I never quite feel like I’ve gotten a full experience.
Noah Baumbach is a short story writer. And he’s a damn good one. He doesn’t deal in full novels, but I think it’s by choice, not out of a limitation in ability. He likes to make films that offer you some details, but not all of the details. He wants you to do some of the work yourself. As with all good short story writers, he’s working in a sort of shorthand, making broad points instead of really digging in deep. It’s sort of perfect that he’s collaborated with Wes Anderson, since I think that’s Anderson’s forte as well. I’ve always said that short stories are better source material for films than novels, because you can let your source material breathe instead of having to strip it to the bone, and when you watch a film like MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, even when it doesn’t satisfy, you get the sense that it’s the details that are most important to Baumbach, not the picture as a whole.
I know that sounds like I’m slamming the film, but I’m not. If I could boil down my hesitations about the film to one thing, it’s that it creates more material than it can possibly deal with. Resolving all the relationships that are established in the film would take several more hours than Baumbach has here, so this is more about setting up the conflict than it is about offering up any sort of conclusion. In that way, it’s certainly more like life than it is like any sort of pat, conventional drama, but for some audiences, I’m sure it’s frustrating.
I’ve been tough on Nicole Kidman the last few years, but it’s mainly because I think she’s a force to be reckoned with in the right films, and when I see her doing BEWITCHED, THE INVASION, or THE STEPFORD WIVES, it’s baffling. Even the crazy risky choices she makes, something I applaud, have led to films like FUR, BIRTH, or THE HUMAN STAIN. Still, I’ll give her credit for this: she’s willing to fail, and she’s willing to play truly rotten people as long as the part interests her. Margot is a truly monstrous character, and it’s to Kidman’s credit that she never once pulls a punch in how she plays the character. The film’s structure is deceptively simple. Margot’s sister Pauline (the great Jennifer Jason Leigh) is getting married, and she wants her sister to be there. It’s not much more complicated than that, plot-wise. What Baumbach’s really interested in is behavior, what happens when he puts these people into orbit around each other.
I understand. I’ve had a rocky relationship with my own sister over the years, and for years, our only-occasional encounters always ended badly. Now, finally, I think that we’ve both reached a place where we’re able to enjoy that time together instead of viewing it as a potential battle. And I only say that because I think everyone has some family issues, or has someone in their family who has some issues, and everyone’s been there when things have gone rotten. And that makes the actual entertainment value of watching this particular meltdown a big fat question mark. Depends, I think, how much stomach you have for cruelty as character. Baumbach practically revels in the shitstorm that Margot’s arrival creates. What pushes this into the almost-too-much category is the fact that it’s not just Pauline that Margot treats like shit... it’s everyone she comes into contact with, and it’s unrelenting. Malcolm (Jack Black), the guy that Pauline is going to marry, is an obvious target for Margot’s scorn and wrath, and I like how Malcolm never really takes it from her. He’s the one person in the film who seems to have some real perspective on how crazy the family dynamic is, and he calls Margot on it. Of course, she still finds a way to roll him over, cut him open, and gut him for sport by the end of the film. The person who takes the worst of it, though, is Margot’s son Claude, and Zane Pais makes a pretty remarkable debut as Margot’s punching bag. She is obviously walking around swollen with self-loathing, and she uses Claude as a sort of measuring stick. Whenever she feels like she just can’t take all the hatred she feels for herself, she vents some of it onto Claude, and Baumbach makes sure you see every flinch, every wound as it’s inflicted. It’s the most disturbing material in the film, and I have a feeling it’s the stuff that will linger the most. Pauline’s already screwed up, and Jennifer Jason Leigh plays it with her typical aplomb, but watching it happen to Claude... horrifying.
And speaking of Nicole Kidman and mixed bags...
THE GOLDEN COMPASS
It’s DUNE. Well produced. Undeniably lush and expensive. Well-cast. The lead is an interesting new discovery. There’s a big battle at the end, a prophecy in the meantime, and lots and lots and lots and lots of exposition about some spice or some dust or something. And none of it adds up to an involving experience. The sum is simply not the parts.
I’ve heard horror stories for months now about the homestretch post-production crunch on the film, but I decided not to pursue any of it simply because of an early conversation I had via e-mail with Chris Weitz, the first time he was considering doing the film as a director. Simply put, his affection for the work of Philip Pullman is real. He didn’t have to sign on to do these films. If he just wanted to do some fantasy movie, he could be making ELRIC OF MELNIBONE movies over at Universal with his brother... something I hope they actually do, by the way. Now that Chris has survived THE GOLDEN COMPASS, I have a feeling he’d be able to do something exceptional. Chris is a smart writer, and if he can marry the energy and the depth of his smaller films with the visual fireworks of COMPASS, then I’m betting he’s going to get really good at making event pictures that are better than they have to be.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS is not one of those films, though.
It’s frustrating because you can see how close they came. You can also clearly see why it doesn’t work, and much of it lies in the source material itself, inherently uncinematic. When I visited the set for the film, I laid out many of my hesitations about the project then, and it doesn’t make me feel good to see that most of the pitfalls I was afraid were there did indeed come to pass. It was hard to sell, it’s been overexplained to the point of inertia, and in the end, the thing that really hobbled the movie is something I didn’t see coming.
Lyra Bellacqua, at least as played in the film, is almost painfully passive as a lead character.
I remember when Scott Frank was struggling to adapt CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, something he seemed initially very excited to work on. He eventually left the project, though, because he ran into the same basic problem there. Charlie is ostensibly the hero of the book... hell, his name’s in the title... but he does very little to earn that. Basically, all he does is win a ticket randomly and then wait while, one by one, every other child does something awful until Charlie eventually wins Wonka’s contest by default. Not exactly the strongest spine for a character. In the novel, Lyra’s a stronger character, but the film manages to reduce her to a passive observer who walks through the film, drifting from eccentric supporting character to eccentric supporting character so each of them can offer up some exposition. Her ability to read the Alethiometer makes very little difference to the overall events of the film. Even the film’s one truly rousing action sequence has pretty much nothing to do with Lyra, and I wonder if it ever occurred to the filmmakers how curiously uninvolving it is to have your main character standing there watching while two animated characters battle to the death. Yes, it’s well-staged, but as much as I hate it when people bitch about the use of special effects (and CGI in particular), I think maybe something’s gone wrong when two non-real characters have the only real conflict in the film.
More than that, I just think the material got the best of the filmmakers. I know how much care went into making this, and yet, when you see the end result, it just lays there. Maybe we’ve reached a cultural saturation point where it is impossible to wring anything new out of the whole genre of magical kids with prophecies about how they’ll save the world. Or maybe it’s just me that has reached that saturation point. I just know that by the end of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, obviously bowdlerized by the studio in an effort to create a happy ending, I didn’t care about anything I was watching. It didn’t even bother me that both adult leads end the film off-stage without any resolution, and it didn’t bother me that they left things hanging to such a degree that I almost expected a voice-over to say “Next time on THE GOLDEN COMPASS...” either. What really bothered me was how little human connection I felt, and without it, there’s no reason to go on this journey.
And judging by the completely full racks of GOLDEN COMPASS toys I saw at the stores today while shopping for Toshi’s Christmas presents, I’d say I’m not alone in feeling that way. What a bloody shame. Viva la HOBBIT, indeed.
THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY
I really liked BASQUIAT, Julian Schnabel’s first film as a director. And I violently hated BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, his second film as a director. So walking into the theater for LE SCAPHANDRE ET LA PAPILLON, I was prepared for either reaction. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extreme physical reaction I had to the filmmaking itself.
See, I didn’t know I had a phobia of being completely dependent on other people. I knew that I hated the idea in a general sense, but until I sat through the first half hour or so of this film, I’d never experienced anything that affected me in this particular way. In telling the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (whose work here is tasteful and piercing) choose to open the film trapped inside Bauby’s body. Everything you see or hear is the way he would see or hear it. And considering he’s just had a stroke and everything on his body is paralyzed except his left eye... what you’re seeing and hearing is very limited. Schnabel effectively captures the existential horror of the situation. And right around the time they have to sew Bauby’s right eye closed, I broke into a cold sweat and started feeling like I wanted to scream. I’m talking about a physical reaction so extreme that I was afraid it might be having an ironically timed stroke.
As played by Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Dominique Bauby isn’t the easy inspirational metaphor he could so easily be. Instead, he seems fully-realized, alive. Part of that is because Schnabel and Harwood plunge you right into Bauby’s head. When he drifts through various levels of consciousness, escaping his spiritual prison in moments of memory and flights of fancy, we drift with him. It’s lyrical work, beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski and cut with precision by Juliette Welfling, the score by Paul Cantelon playing precise counterpoint to this thankfully unsentimental approach to telling Bauby’s story. This version of this story could have only happened outside the Hollywood development system.
The film packs a wallop, but it’s not the sort of tearjerker you expect it to be. It’s not aiming at an easy cry while you’re sitting there in the dark. Bauby ended up writing a novel, a soaring, beautiful, brief piece of work, dedicated in large part to meals that were completely imagined, an entire book that he had to compose by blinking his left eye in a code, dictating it letter by letter. There’s no way to literally shoot the book as a movie, so by telling the story of its writing and then painting Bauby’s inner life as these sort of lightning bolts of pure visual storytelling that punctuate the film, Schnabel and Harwood did more than just translate a book to the screen. They cracked open the art and the artist both and splashed them up onscreen together.
Bauby is largely defined over the course of the film by the women in his life. Anne Consigny is this beatific presence as Claude, the main translator of Bauby’s dictation. Emmanuelle Seigner does fantastic, powerful work as Celine, Bauby’s wife. There’s a scene here where she has to help Bauby “speak” during a phone call with his mistress that is perhaps the single most painful moment I’ve seen an actor play all year. Seigner doesn’t get enough credit for how good an actress she’s become in recent years, and I would suggest that all anyone needs to do is see this film for proof that she is a formidable presence indeed. Marie-Josee Croze, who made such a strong impression in Spielberg’s MUNICH a few years ago, is also exceptional here. Just seeing how strong each of these women is, you start to see what kind of man Jean-Dominique was before his stroke. It’s no easy trick to define a character by reflection, sketching in details of his personality by way of the ripples he’s left in the lives of others, but the film pulls it off to spectacular effect.
Overall, THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY is not an easy sit. It’s not a pleasant experience. But at the end of it, I felt better... as if the film had put me through something genuine. I can think of no higher compliment for Schnabel as a filmmaker.