Holiday Season Movies: Part 1
Surprises and disappointments start off my sure-to-be-busy Holiday Season of movie going. The standard quick look:
Frank Langella has been getting raves for his work in the excellent Starting Out In the Evening, and with good reason: his Leonard Schiller is brilliant, a wonderfully subtle portrayal of a dignified, aging New York City intellectual/writer—once celebrated, now out-of-print and "respected"— trying to finish his last novel before time runs out. But almost as impressive here is Lili Taylor as his protective, warmhearted daughter Ariel, on the cusp of 40, a little lost in life, longing to have a child, in love with a man who does not; and Lauren Ambrose as the pretty, precocious graduate student Heather, who, under the guise of writing her Master's thesis on the man, convinces Schiller to let her into his home, his mind, and, ultimately, his heart. This is just a great, grown-up movie, intelligent and true, about decent people whom you can root for to find some measure of peace and happiness in their lives.
We've been excited about Enchanted since the first trailer months ago... but after a dozen or so such viewings I was concerned that I was already sick of a movie I hadn't yet seen. Not to worry. This sweet, brisk and clever romantic comedy about an animated-turned-flesh-and-blood princess (a terrific Amy Adams) and her attendent prince-in-pursuit, talking chipmunk, and evil queen, all flung from a Disney cartoon fairytale land into present-day Manhattan, has enough honest emotion and genuinely hilarious moments that even an unnecessary—and unnecessarily loud and frantic—final act can't ruin the fun. While not as completely subversive as some viewers would like, if a fresh take on happily-ever-after appeals, this will not disappoint.
About half of Stephen King's The Mist is a ripping thriller featuring legions of horrifically skin-crawling creatures doing horrifically skin-crawling things to the good people of SmallTown, Maine. Unfortunately, the other half feels like a TV miniseries in the worst way. It's not that all the acting is terrible (Toby Jones and Andre Braugher aren't given nearly enough screen time), though some of it definitely is (I don't understand why people keep giving Thomas Jane work). But the script is hopelessly ham-fisted, the plotting clunky, and the film stars a character you've never wished would just please DIE already more than Marcia Gay Harden's crazy evangelist. That said, if you're at all intrigued, I would suggest checking it out, if only for the deliriously cruel ending, which had a packed house in Times Square hooting with glee and disbelief.
The more you know about Bob Dylan's life and music, the more you'll enjoy I'm Not There, Todd Hayne's impressionistic, creative, beautifully filmed, incredibly frustrating sort-of biopic. By now you know the central gimmick: six different actors play six different aspects of Dylan's life and personality, highlighted, in both my and Debbie's opinion, by Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and Ben Whishaw. It's all very interesting and cool in theory—and, really, there are many very good individual moments here—but ultimately Haynes is annoyingly unhelpful to his audience, flexing an exclusivity that's totally unneeded. It was completely unclear to me for most of the movie how much of the action/emotion was based on reality, and how much was fiction. Should it have mattered? Maybe not... but because there's no real narrative here, admiring the director's imagination and technical skill is only compelling up to a point. The parts of the film I liked the most, by far, were the parts that I "got": Haynes's portrait of Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, to give just one example, was funny, ingenious, and powerful. I think if Haynes had just been a little more welcoming, just helped us non-fanatics a little more, my opinion of the movie would have changed dramatically. I don't like being pushed away so firmly by a filmmaker—especially for an overly-long 135 minutes—my only failing having been insufficient research on his subject. There's an underlying smugness to it all, as when anyone uses their knowledge of a certain set of facts or ideas—facts or ideas which we all could learn, but just haven't, for whatever reason—as the basis for feeling and asserting their superiority. There's no teaching in I'm Not There, no generosity, and I think Haynes really blew it.
Debbie put it best: Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding is little more than an exercise in "horribleness for horribleness's sake". The story is simple: one sister comes to witness another's nuptials, and everyone treats everyone else like garbage. Kids, parents, neighbors, siblings, lovers, fiancés, exes, babysitters... all of them. Just horrible. Sure, the acting is first rate, especially the three leads, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicole Kidman, and Jack Black. And the script is sharp, though this feels like a much longer movie than its actual 90-minute running time. But, honestly, why do I need to spend any time at all with such miserable, vindictive, ugly, manipulative people? And the answer, of course, is that I don't. So, next time Baumbach, forget it... I'm NOT going! Now, I thought the same thing about his Squid and the Whale, which many people also loved, including my aforementioned girlfriend (in fact, I actually liked Margot more than Squid), so let your conscious, and your stomach for meanness, be your guide here.