Tag Archives: 3.5 stars

Way late review: Margaret

I used to wonder what happened to Kenneth Lonergan, director of a film I adore, You Can Count on Me. It’s been roughly a dozen years since that near masterpiece of a film was released. Apparently Longergan was in a bit of a mess with Fox Searchlight over his next film which was shot in 2005. That film, Margaret finally found its way out in a very limited theater release in 2011. And in 2012 I finally got to see it.

The plot driving Margaret is rather simple. A high school girl, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), witnesses a bus accident she feels she was at least partially at fault for. Lisa then struggles to deal with the aftermath. Rather straightforward yet the layers are many. The people weaving in and out of Lisa’s life, some right through the core and others on the periphery, are numerous. Scenes from one story line cut abruptly into another.

Lisa is an unlikable character. Before the accident wrecks havoc on her, she is shown to be manipulative. In fairness, the adults in her lives aren’t exactly role models. Her math teacher (Matt Damon) proves to cross the line from caring to creepy. Her dad is on the other coast and is so passive in his moments on screen that it makes Lisa look like a competent decision maker. Lisa’s mom is a broadway actress who takes care of Lisa and her brother in New York City but most of the film shows the young grade school boy fending for himself. He seems to enter and leave the house on a whim. Lisa does the same.

Margaret attempts to examine the lives of those in and around Lisa’s life. There are powerful scenes mixed throughout, the problem becomes the thin thread that holds it all together. The film could have been five hours long and only scratched the surface of the many topics and themes hinted at throughout the theatrical cut. The editing seems frantically disjointed at times as characters flash on the screen and then sometimes don’t reappear until much later, if at all.

In between all the chaos is Lisa’s attempt at ensuring justice is served to the bus driver behind the wheel of the accident. She goes from traumatized teenager to a justice crusader. We’re never sure if she is sincere about her pursuit of justice or simply thriving off the drama. Even the best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), of the victim confronts Lisa on the motives behind Lisa’s sudden interest in making a case. The interactions between Emily and Lisa are tense. But as tense and as strong as those moments are, they never reach a resolution that is satisfying one way or the other.

A two and a half hour sprawling drama centered on a generally unlikeable character does not sound appealing. Oddly enough it’s also not a chore, thanks mostly to director and writer Kenneth Lonergan’s penchant for writing scenes that more than hold interest. Margaret is at least two very good films hiding inside one good one. A strange formula but fitting for a film with such a struggle in getting a final release.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Another Earth

The odds of finding two dramas with female leads dealing with depression set to a sci-fi backdrop released in the same year seems unlikely. I thought Melancholia would fill that niche but that was until I watched Another Earth.

Rhoda (Brit Marling) is smart. She’s going to attend MIT and study astrophysics. That was the plan until one night she drives home after a party and slams into another car with a family of three. Mom and son die, leaving the husband John (William Mapother) in a coma he eventually comes out of. John never learns the name of the teenager responsible for killing his wife and son. Rhoda serves four years in prison. The once promising braniac is rendered a shell of herself. She is so ridden with guilt she can only muster up the courage to take a job as a janitor. Even though she doesn’t say it, Rhoda doesn’t believe she deserves a better life after having taken the lives of others.

Beyond sharing themes of depression, Another Earth also shares a planet coming closer to earth. Instead of impending doom from a planet on a collision course with our world, Rhoda and others are confronted with a planet that is a mirror image of Earth. In fact, for every person on Earth there is an exact replica on “Earth 2” (as it’s called in the film). Melancholia lost points with me due to its heavy handed nature. Another Earth loses some points for a completely absurd idea. Fortunately that idea does not take center stage. Though, one could argue that Earth 2 is allegorical just as much as Melancholia.

Aimless wandering finds Rhoda one evening near the scene of the fatal accident. She sees a man lay a toy near a telephone pole. This drives her to dig up information on the man who she discovers is John, a once accomplished music professor at Yale now retired to living a reclusive lifestyle. Rhoda spies on John and finds a man self medicating with alcohol. Her conscience is bothered and she works up the courage to go to John’s house and knock on his door. Her plan is to admit her guilt. Much like her plan was to go to MIT, things change. Only this time Rhoda makes a last second decision to change her plan and pose as a representative for a cleaning service. She offers a free, one day trial. John reluctantly accepts. From that point forward Rhoda cleans John’s home once per week. Eventually a friendship forms between the two. John starts to come to life as Rhoda looks to leave hers behind. She enters a contest for a spot on a shuttle to Earth 2 and wins.

The drama that unfolds between Rhoda and John as they draw closer and Rhoda gets an opportunity to move far, far away is heartfelt. The misstep occurs when time is given to an almost cosmic connection between Rhoda and a fellow high school janitor. This janitor serves as a spiritual guru of sorts. His words of wisdom come off as fortune cookie fodder and the supposed deep bond he and Rhoda share feels forced and inauthentic.

The end is satisfactory if not a bit hokie due to the idea of a mirrored Earth coming to the forefront. Be that as it may, credit to Mike Cahill for trying something a bit different in the small indie drama. The success still comes from the basics, with strong chemistry between Rhoda and John and an interesting story that holds its own without the aid of (what mostly amounts to) a science fiction gimmick.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

If ever there was a film where I felt like I should have had a hard time staying awake, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be it. A “slow burn” if ever there was one. Scratch that. It’s a slow burn hitching a ride on a tortoise.

The Cold War is on and there is a spy within the ranks of MI-6. Former agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought back, years after being fired, to head up the investigation. His detective work leads him through all the potential suspects. He digs into every aspect of their whereabouts during a botched Hungarian operation. Smiley is looked upon with much suspicion since his sudden return leads many to doubt his allegiances.

Even though it is one of the quieter spy movies, Tinker has an appeal in the way some of the best documentaries do. We get to observe people doing their jobs. We get to observe them skillfully go about their business. Of course, the characters and plot here are all fiction, but the appeal of the performances and the realism of the setting make for an oddly engaging film.

The plot is not all that inventive. Spies who work both sides are nothing unusual, at least not in fiction. There are interesting sub-plots though; small stories within the larger investigation that are more thrilling than Smiley cracking the case.

Staying awake during a film is not a ringing endorsement. Yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of those films that tests your patience with its deliberate pace and, at the same time, wins you over with great performances and attention to details normally left out of the modern day spy genre.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Melancholia

Driving home a point in storytelling is tricky. For instance, you can go the route of a film like Fireproof which makes no attempt at subtlety. The message is front and center, with the story taking a backseat. And while Lars von Trier’s Melancholia does not preach, it also makes no attempt to hide its core purpose of showing the despair one can feel at the greatest depths of depression and anxiety. The title alone wears its heart on its sleeve.

A previously unknown planet, Melancholia, is on a collision course with Earth. Life goes on for sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). After a Tree of Life like, operatic montage, we’re thrown into Justine and her new husband, Michael (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd), trying to make it up a long winding road to Claire and her husband John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) mansion on an 18-hole golf course. They are running late for their own wedding reception and the stretch limo isn’t helping matters. From there the first half of the movie is reminiscent of Rachel Getting Married, complete with an impromptu embarrassing speech given by a close family member.

At first it appears that Justine is in post-wedding bliss. She and Michael exchange adoring smiles at one another as they laugh about their predicament of not being able to make it up the road to their own wedding reception. As the reception begins and family dynamics start to play out, it becomes clear Justine is not quite right. She is withdrawn. Her husband tries to comfort her but it’s no use. Her sister confronts her and asks Justine to not ruin a beautiful celebration. The night wears on and Justine withdraws from everyone in ways that lead to odd, selfish behavior which has long term consequences. All the while, those surrounding Justine seem to want her to simply move on, to be happy and live life to its fullest, ignoring the direness Justine feels and her actions begin to display.

Some time passes and Justine returns to Claire and John’s place. She is a zombie. She sleeps all the time and is barely coherent. Her depression is on full display. No more empty smiles and attempts at laughter. Claire does her best to tend to her sister while she herself obsesses over the possibility that Melancholia is going to smash into Earth. John, who is fascinated by astronomy, assures his wife that scientists believe the two planets will not collide and life as they know it will continue. Despite the assurances, Claire is anxious. She has a sister lost in the depths of depression and can’t escape the thought that the end of the world is only days away. She pours herself into helping Justine get better, encouraging her to ride horses, eat meals with the family; stay active. At the same time, Claire also purchases medicine for an apparent suicide. Justine seems unconcerned about the end of the world. She welcomes it. Claire fears it yet makes plans for ending life on her own terms.

The theme of depression and anxiety set to the impending doom of the planet Earth is interesting if not ultimately fatalistic. From opening with an apocalyptic montage to jumping into the relative mundaneness of a wedding reception, the contrasts are jarring. And while the opening and closing of the film are as cinematic as any, the bulk of the film is shot in more of a run-n-gun style, with the camera zooming in and out in ways that are unusual for most feature length films. Contrasts are everywhere and yet one consistency throughout the film is how Justine’s depression and Claire’s anxiety are handled by those around them. For the most part, they are treated as “this to shall pass” and not taken seriously. It’s as if friends and loved ones want to give pat answers so no one needs to get bogged down in the messiness that is the desperation and fear the two sisters feel.

Not a feel good film, Melancholia does succeed at conveying the entrapment felt by those who suffer from from depression and anxiety. The story never goes beyond a loose narrative, just enough to keep forward progression and allow the actors to lead the way all while a mysterious blue planet careens towards Earth. Subtle it is not.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Chasing down a mystery as the centerpiece of a documentary is tricky. On the one hand, the thrill of the chase should make for a compelling story. On the other hand, solving the mystery may turn out to be a let down if the end result is far less mysterious than it originally seemed. Resurrect Dead finds itself in this quandary.

Kicking off with an intriguing question – who was responsible for all the strange plaques made of tiles with the even stranger message “TOYNBEE IDEA IN Kubrick’s 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER” pasted on streets all across the east coast and parts of South America and what does it mean? – Ressurect Dead races off with a relatively stylish approach to a bizarre puzzle. Director Jon Foy follows a small cast of characters obsessed with solving the Toynbee tiles mystery. Unfortunately for Foy, his cast of characters is filled with only one who holds much interest outside of the task at hand. Not a death knell, but when the film leads in numerous dead ends on its way to answering the question of the who and why behind the seemingly other worldly tiles, the story needs a strong character or two to hold the wandering narrative together. Its no small task and Foy does about as good of a job as one could, given how long he chased this story and the conclusion that was reached.

Justin Duerr is the ring leader. He is front in center as the curious amateur detective trying to crack the case. His own back story holds a fair amount of interest and even parallels that of the main suspect in many ways. Foy may have missed an opportunity to draw even stronger connections between his wild-eyed sherlock holmes and the suspected tiler.

By the time the mystery is solved, or at least as solved as it’s likely to ever be solved, there is a letdown. The big payoff isn’t there and the journey of exploring the major suspects turns up only a few interesting moments. What starts off as a fast paced thrill ride ends more like a tame carousel. Still, the dedication to chasing the story to its end is admirable. And the first third of the movie is as engaging as any mystery, fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes the premise of a documentary is far more intriguing than its end reveals. There is only so much a director can do to remedy that and Jon Foy does his best to put it all together in an entertaining and informative package.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.