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Sunday, Dec 16, 2007


Only time will tell. It’s been very helpful to other struggling scary movies. When it was first released in 1974, most critics considered Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be the most disgusting, debased effort in the history of the shock genre. Today, a copy of the film sits in the vault of the Museum of Modern Art. When Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead hit the Cineplex, a positive blurb from horror master Stephen King couldn’t keep the splatter fest from ending up on many writer’s year end “Worst” lists. Now, it’s seen as a powerful and effective chiller. So there’s hope for Rob Zombie yet. Upon its arrival in theaters this past August, many despised his intriguing remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick, Halloween. Here’s hoping that a few years from now, when the controversy has passed and new eyes have viewed this exceptional effort, the film and its maker will get the respect and reevaluation they so richly deserve.


It wasn’t an easy choice for the rock star turned filmmaker to make, initially. After two very difficult and very different self-styled films (the average House of 1000 Corpses and the amazing exploitation update The Devil’s Rejects), taking on the myth of Michael Myers was bound to get more than a few geeks’ goats. After all, in a post-Internet world where everyone’s an expert of cinema, tampering with the genius of Carpenter’s creation seemed ludicrous. No matter that the Michael Bay produced Chainsaw update ended up being something to celebrate, there was a metaphysical quality about this seemingly unnecessary revamp that had webheads ready to tussle. And when early script reviews foamed over too much backstory and not enough slice and dice, the worst fears of the fans were apparently about to be realized.


So where, exactly, was the subterfuge? Maybe it was the release date. After all, who offers a blood-filled terror title in the middle of summer? It could also be the continued marginalization of Zombie. While a few support his work behind the camera, there are others who hate the very notion that he’s even allowed to make movies. There’s the standard anticipation to reality ratio, a slippery sliding scale that measures viewer expectation against the usually crashing facts of a film. And then there’s an odd “X” factor, a kind of mob mentality that works like the juvenile piling on from the days of the old school yard. It seemed like, once the negativity began, critics came out of the woodwork to belittle and demean this film. Even those who never sully their synapses with a genre effort took time out of their otherwise busy screening schedule to rip the remake.


Yet all this antagonism fails to convey the aesthetic truth - Halloween 2007 is a great film. It’s the ballsy byproduct of a horror fan who ‘gets’ the concept of cinematic fear. While having to fill some mighty elephantine shoes, Zombie established his worth as a director of imaginative skill, and by bucking the trend toward defanging an original via a pointless remake, he proved that a new vision - especially a bold and bloody one - can countermand any artistic apprehensions. Still, the aura surrounding this breakthrough effort is confused and cold at best. It will take time to heal it’s damaged import. The rehabilitation of this movie can begin with the 18 December release of the essential two disc ‘unrated’ DVD. It argues for one man’s persistence in light of the numerous needs of a mainstream motion picture (and the studio supporting it).

If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant repetition – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive), and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


In his full length audio commentary, Zombie addresses all the issues that gave purists pause. He defends his use of backstory, explains the way actors gravitate toward their own interpretations of events, and rallies around the archetypes that make up standard scary movie mythos. It’s the DVD equivalent of a mea culpa combined with an “I told you so.” One thing is clear in this conversation - Zombie completely understands what he’s done. He too is an addict to the genre he works in, and wants to be as faithful to the demands of the horror film as anyone working in the category. Unfortunately, the wavelength he’s vibrating on clashes with the mindset of minions who believe fright got its bearings during the direct to video variables of the 1980s…and it’s a volatile cocktail that just doesn’t mix.


There’s also a second disc loaded with deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a three part look at how the movie was made, interviews with the cast and crew, and a featurette focusing on Zombie’s decision to use and the movie’s obsession with masks. One of the main sticking points for critics was the notion that Michael Myers, as a famed spree killer, has a background seemingly torn from an FBI primer on behavioral dysfunction. Yet in this piece, we discover a much deeper psychological stance. In many ways, the masks represent the link between the character as an angry child and what he will become as a psychotic stalker adult.


All this context argues for a movie much more complicated than initial reviews indicated. While comedy is always gauged on its ability to make audiences laugh, horror suffers from a similar kneejerk acumen - that being, if it doesn’t make you shiver, it’s somehow worthless. However, in a post-millennial world, where everyday existence bears out a palpable level of terror, it’s hard to create genuine dread. Reverence to a film type can be just as important as delivering the mandatory mannerisms. In the case of Halloween, we get a dimensional character study where emotions battle the eerie for total shocker dominance. That both elements exist, side by side, remains one of Zombie’s - and his film’s - greatest assets. 


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this assassin. Not to apologize for him, but merely explain. By turning him into a flesh and blood person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of elucidating and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


At this point, it needs to be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. The addition of scenes in this “unrated director’s cut” adds more heft to his onscreen persona. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son that’s both horrifying and heartbreaking.


As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Still, upon reflection, it’s easy to see why people didn’t like this confrontational film, why one should feel sorry for Zombie. He was really lost in a no-win situation. On the one hand, anyone who believed Carpenter was something more than a joyful journeyman working out his Hitchcock fascinations with this 1978 low budget experiment obviously would detest the fact that his most famous early film received the crass commercial Tinsel Town treatment. They were destined to hate the results no matter how good or bad. On the other hand, there are the know-it-all members of fear nation whose endless hours in front of a VCR, absorbing every thriller from here to Helsinki, lend them the false credibility that only obsession can validate. Since they are superior in their informed (if insular) opinion, they have the implied right to ridicule this filmmaker and the man behind the mask.


In both cases, each group is missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, his reemergence was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. It’s the making of a murderer and the consequences of his descent into unfettered madness that certify its status as a classic. It also formed the foundation for one of the smartest, most shattering horror films ever. Unfortunately, few can see that now. It will take time for the truth to emerge - and when it does, Zombie’s efforts will finally be justified. Better late than never.


 


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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007


Every season, some film has to sacrifice itself for the greater good. Either it’s badly marketing, the release is poorly timed, or the concept just doesn’t connect with ticket buyers. Whatever the case, these misplaced movies are often left for dead, swept under the rug of retail for a quick turnaround DVD release. Some, on the other hand, are sleepers, quality efforts that could battle the bad luck that’s befallen them if only given a chance. In this case, the digital domain is a Godsend, allowing audiences who failed to find the film the first time around a second chance to discover its delights.


Thus we have the situation with the ping pong parody Balls of Fury. This little gem from August deserved better than the mediocre response it received both critically and commercially. Thanks to Universal and the current film format, it’s getting another shot at stardom. In standard overreaching athletic film style, we are introduced to a young Randy Daytona, known everywhere as the best table tennis player in the world. It’s the 1988 Olympic Games, and our hero is out to win the gold. Only two things are stopping him—his overly aggressive and wager-addicted dad Marine Sgt. Pete (an aging Robert Patrick) and an obnoxious competitor from the German Democratic Republic named Karl Wolfschtagg (co-writer Tom Lennon).

Defeated almost immediately, the young Daytona grows up to be a slovenly lounge act (and is played to perfection by Tony Winner Dan Fogler). When the FBI wants to investigate the criminal activities of a reclusive ping pong impresario named Feng (Christopher Walken), they try to hire Daytona to help. But he’s unsure that the agent assigned (a good George Lopez) is capable of carrying out the mission. Eventually, our down and out paddle jockey winds up at the Wong School. Run by the blind Master (a jovial James Hong), Daytona learns the ricochet shot ropes from sexy Maggie Wong (Maggie Q). Soon, he is ready to take on the best competitors on the planet as part of Feng’s illegal, underground tournament.


Right, you guessed it. It is Enter the Dragon with dorks. Director Ben Garant—who along with Lennon is responsible for such half-witted hilarity as Reno 911 and the beloved MTV sketch series The State - recognizes the hoops he has to jump through, and never once misses a formulaic beat. Yet it’s another show that the two were involved in, the highly underrated Comedy Central spoof Viva Variety! , that best coincides with what the duo accomplishes here.


For those not paying much attention, the obvious slapstick and dialed down dopiness earn the requisite guffaws. But there are several sensational throwaways, lines and moments where a tuned in viewer will find pinpoint lampoon accuracy. The most obvious example is Christopher Walken. It’s clear he was given a single mandate from the moviemakers: mock yourself. In line readings and adlibs that seemingly come from another consciousness, the king of quirk really ratchets up the purposeful oddness.


He is matched by a cavalcade of cameos, brilliant bits that really sell the film’s freakishness. Stand-up sage Patton Oswalt shows up as the most asthmatic mouth breathing feeb in the history of regional recreational sports. His single sequence is sensational. Also aces is Terry Crews as a muscle bound paddle head whose entire shtick centers around his inherent bad-assness. Aisha Tyler as the necessary villain sidekick eye candy is a Rosario Dawson role away from real stardom, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is officiously ominous as the henchman with a bad sense of direction. When you toss in the fine supporting work from Maggie Q (though she’s given little to do), Hong (Lo Pan LIVES!) and Lopez, you have a wonderful collection of creative supplements. Without a workable star, however, all of this would be for naught.


Luckily, Dan Fogler is dynamite. He’s an overnight—and slightly overweight—sensation that’s been busting his doughy rump in minor movies for far too long. Like a combination of Tim Curry, Curtis Armstrong, and some roadie for Molly Hatchet, he brings a kind of nuanced knuckleheadedness to what could easily have been a wash out waste of time. Randy Daytona has to come across as a lump, a loser, and likeable all within a single situation.


We want to root for him, but recognize he wears his limitations like the sweat-stained Def Leppard shirt he’s constantly sporting. Similar to any slacker savior, Daytona has to eventually ante up and set off his skills, and when Fogler mans a table tennis paddle, all bets are off. Sure, what we see is basically CGI and stunt work, but you choose to believe the illusion. That’s how important and how powerful this actor’s work is here. Don’t be surprised when, decades from now, his celebrated resume cites Balls of Fury as his first legitimate step into the limelight.


Unfortunately, the movie loses direction about two thirds of the way in. It doesn’t turn bad or horribly unwatchable. Instead, it appears as if Lennon and Garant simply ran out of inspiration, and decided to tread celluloid for a few scenes before righting the cinematic ship and sailing the satire home. The ending is an excellent revamp of the great fortress escape stereotype, and the electrified ping pong armor showdown is a nice touch. Still, right about the time Daytona learns of Feng’s “preference” in concubines, and just before the long awaited rematch between Wolfschtagg and our hero, there’s some significant downtime.


In fact, the whole film has a slight truncated feel, as if honed by one too many trips to the editing bay and far too many focus group/industry screenings. With a potent premise like this, the filmmakers could have easily squeezed another 10 minutes into the movie and no one would have really cared. That’s why the new DVD is so wonderful. Packed with seven deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and two EPK style making-ofs, we are given a great amount of context for a film that’s begging for a little more backstory. 


With its unabashed love of all things idiotic and a humorous heart situated in the proper place, Balls of Fury could have been a classic contender. Maybe 10 years ago, in a less than impressive season that didn’t see a certain industry juggernaut ‘Apatow’ everything in its path, that would have been. And the film really does deserve it. You’ll be reading a lot of reviews that marginalize this effort, reducing it to a lower than lowest common denominator and wondering over who, exactly, would find any of this even remotely funny. To turn the tables for a moment, it’s the same sentiment that could be offered for Lennon and Garant’s entire career.


They were responsible for the painfully dull Night at the Museum, and put the NASCAR spin on the unnecessary Love Bug remake. They even perpetrated The Pacifier and Let’s Go to Prison on an unwitting ticket buying public. So either they’re the smartest simpletons in all of screenwriting, or they’re the dumbest geniuses ever to cash a series of Tinsel Town paychecks. It’s an ambiguous dichotomy that makes Balls of Fury an incomplete success - or perhaps, a nicely noble failure. While conceivably not quite a sleeper, it’s definitely a surprise.


 


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007


For the weekend beginning 14 December, here are the films in focus:


I Am Legend [rating: 6]


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.  read full review…


Margot at the Wedding [rating: 7]


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference.


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.  read full review…


Alvin and the Chipmunks [rating: 2]


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less.


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.  read full review…


Look [rating: 7]


Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film.


There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching. read full review…


The Singing Revolution [rating: 7]


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region.


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.  read full review…


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

THE SINGING REVOLUTION [dir. James Tusty]


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.


As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name, Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.


Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.


Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us of is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.


As with any political thriller, this is incredibly compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.


In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually rattle off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.


It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - with the people.


 



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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING [dir. Noah Baumbach]


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.


Though she hasn’t seen her sister in years, Margot wants to travel to the Northeast to attend Pauline’s wedding. While there, she can hook up with her writing partner/lover Dick, and even work in a reading at a local bookstore. Son Claude has come along as well, and he finds an immediate bond with his distant relatives. He loves Pauline’s compassion, enjoys her fiancé Malcolm’s unmannered pretense, and finds the ongoing property struggle with the neighboring Voglers a source of constant curiosity. As the big day approaches, Margot’s natural buttinski personality takes over, and she questions everything about Pauline’s life - her choice of man (whose jobless and sketchy at best), where she lives (hermetically sealed in the family home), and her obvious lingering animosity. From her perspective, this marriage should never happen. Pauline, however, just wants her sister back, if only to share in her miserable memories of an abusive and empty childhood. Yet while they try to love and support each other, their past keeps coming back to haunt and harm them.


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference. Nothing is spelled out in this quasi-quirk out, actors with substantial performance chops trying to carry writer/director Noah Baumbach’s idiosyncrasies all the way to the awards podium. Unfortunately, we are dealing with subterfuge so scattered that we fail to see the forest for the failing family tree (which we get a literal example of). This is the kind of film where you don’t learn the character’s professions until midway through. It’s a narrative that hints at parental horrors, but never spells them out in obvious ways. It will introduce characters without explaining who they are or their import (the gay couple at dinner, the oddball next door neighbors) and drop situations that suggest there are major issues that need to be dealt with (sex with a teenage girl, a bad bite mark on a child’s neck).


Instead, what Baumbach hopes to achieve is a kind of snapshot of siblings struggling to reconnect. For Pauline, her ‘famous’ author sister is a constant source of pride…and embarrassment. While they haven’t spoken in years, Margot will take individual tragedy and personal pain and translate it into her own snobbish literature. For the know-it-all authoress, Pauline is a pathetic shell of what she really could be. She settles for men who Margot feel are far too flawed (including new slacker Malcolm) and limits her own potential by hiding inside the clan’s old seaside abode. The wedding itself is a ruse - a chance to get together and trade oh so clever quips and languid insights about the human condition…and we are supposed to convert these hoary heart to hearts into something meaningful.


Unfortunately, Margot at the Wedding doesn’t provide us with a primer. We don’t know why the family fights (though Margot’s use of their past in her fiction seems to drive some of the friction) and the whole issue with the neighbors and a dying tree seems lifted out of a bad TV drama. People as peculiar as the Voglers shouldn’t be feared - they should be locked up by the local authorities. Yet like a novelist without an editor, Baumbach keeps adding more, hinting that there are mountained molehills that the tone of this movie can’t manage. You keep expecting Tom Hanks and Corey Feldman to show up and start riffing on life in the ‘burbs. Since he has the talent to take on the material he wants to address, the mind behind The Squid and the Whale should have let his actors loose. Instead, his sense of surreality constantly hems them in.


The performances are indeed wonderful. While she’s usually a marquee mannequin, Nicole Kidman shows a nice ditzy vulnerability as Margot. She’s also one of the bitterest pills her relatives have ever had to swallow, and she balances both emotions with exceptional ease. Also marvelous is the usually showy Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dialed down to a more dour, reserved presence, she is perfect in a role that requires her to be both strong and stupid, enlightened and lost. When they are on screen together, these stars light up the limited dialogue. Supporting them are substantial turns by Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, and Flora Cross. Mr. Tenacious D may loose some of his focus toward the end (his crying tends to play as goofy instead of genuine), but he matches wits with Hinds’ haughty outsider expertly.


If there is a weak link in all this thespianism, it’s newcomer Zane Pais. Granted, he has the hardest role in the entire film, trying to portray adolescent coming of age, a parental breakup paradigm, and the budding interest in his long lost relatives all at once. Unfortunately, he’s too unrefined and raw to make it all work. Instead, he seems adrift, his unusually long hair constantly masking the emotion rippling across his face. Baumbach may have a way with words, but he fails to give Claude anything but a series of inquiries and arguments. We never know his place in the vague dust up between Margot, her absent husband, and the man she is sleeping with. Instead, we keep focusing on the tree, and a meaningless shoe that’s supposed to symbolize…something.


Still, anyone who’s got a closet full of mother/father/offspring skeletons will probably connect with this movie on some primitive level. Margot at the Wedding tells a story perfectly poised for those who’ve yet to deal with their ever-present personal baggage. Even worse, it argues that there are no answers, that nosy sisters and reactionary siblings will always stay the same, that therapy brings no closure and relationship seminars don’t teach potential mates anything about staying away from temptation. There is a lot of good motion picture meat here (John Turturro’s cameo as Margot’s husband, Malcolm and Pauline discussing children), but you have to chew through so much mannered fat and gristle that it barely seems worth it. In the end, it’s the performances that will stay with you. The rest of Margot at the Wedding is like that socially mandated ritual - filled with preplanned pomp, resulting in very little actual finality.



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