Recent Movie Review Round-Up

I’ve been seeing a lot of (mostly) new movies lately, mostly because of Telluride at Dartmouth, and haven’t gotten around to blogging them. So here’s the collection, in order of quality:
1. Margot at the Wedding. This is Noel Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, and considering as I’ve seen Squid about 20-odd times and adored every minute of every viewing, I came in with high expectations. These were quickly met and exceeded. It’s definitely a more difficult film than Squid; there are fewer purely comedic moments, and the familial angst is much stronger and more vicious. The main distinction between the movies is that while Squid was about children adopting the worst instincts of adults (the father’s pretension and womanizing, the mother’s sexual indiscretion) Margot is about adults who are utterly unable to mature. Nicole Kidman plays the title character, a famed novelist who still manipulates her partner (John Turturro), her son (Zane Pais), and most of all her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and in each instance demonstrating the emotional development of a middle schooler. Malcolm (Jack Black), her sister’s fiancé, is an unemployed dilettantish man-child. And her sister seems like an uncomfortable mix of the two. It’s a hard film to watch, but it’s immensely rewarding. Kidman, Leigh, and Black all turn in stellar performances, and if nothing else it’ll make you feel far better about the state of your family.
2. Eastern Promises. I don’t see why this is regarded as an especially violent movie. There are fight scenes sure, and a little bit of gore, but this comprises a preciously small part of the plot. Without the character of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), this would be a run-of-the-mill thriller about an innocent midwife (Naomi Watts) getting in too deep with the Russian mafia. But Nikolai, a morally conflicted mob driver/body disposer, is hands-down the most interesting character I’ve seen this year. His simultaneous struggle for acceptance within the organization, antagonism with the mob’s heir, willingness to challenge its leader, and disgust at its excesses may not render him appealing, but it does make him more textured, and believable than your average mob movie character. And that’s all before a twist at the end totally re-jiggers Nikolai’s motives. Half of this is Steve Knight’s script and half of it is Mortensen’s excellent acting, but all of it is brilliant.
3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If this film consisted solely of its first half, it would top this list. For this period, it’s told entirely from the visual and auditory perspective of Jean-Do Bauby, its protagonist. Bauby had a stroke that resulted in him being completed paralyzed except in his eyelids, leaving him unable to communicate except through blinking. For a good hour, one hears only what Bauby hears, sees only what Bauby sees, and ends up feeling almost as trapped as Bauby was. It’s a powerful experiment, and the director, Julian Schnabel, should be congratulated for taking the risk, because it pays off wonderfully. But the second half of the movie stumbles badly. It contains no coherent plot, and generally plods along without any of the impact of the first half. Still, though, this is a truly sui generis film, and that is to be commended.
4. The Bourne Trilogy. Last Friday, the Dartmouth Film Society showed The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum one right after another, from 5 PM to 11 PM. The fact that it was very easy to sit in the same place for six hours on end is a testament to how compelling the series is. It’s not great art by any means, but it’s politically fascinating, tautly made, and has realistic, compelling action sequences in spades. It’s pretty clear that Supremacy is the worst of the three; it tries to stretch a very small plot too much, and its trademark car chase was more boring on second viewing than anything. But Identity and Ultimatum are approximately tied, with both striking exactly the right balance of action and politics. The stairway scene in Identity and the Tangiers fight in Ultimatum are particularly transcendent.
5. Persepolis. This was a disappointment. I read the first graphic novel and loved it; the characters were rich, particularly Marjane, and the topic is, obviously, politically relevant. But in the film the speed makes the characters two dimensional and Marjane’s life seem too fragmentary. The film utterly failed to connect the viewer emotionally with the action on the screen. And that was before the completely unnecessary rendition of “Eye of the Tiger“. It’s still perfectly good, and interesting, entertainment; but the book was so much more.
6. 3:10 to Yuma. This was a perfectly good genre movie for the first three quarters of it. It absorbed every Western stereotype and cliché imaginable, but it did so with a reverence for the source material and a certain class. Then, in the last quarter, nothing Russell Crowe’s character does makes sense. At all. He directly and systematically works against his own survival and personal success when he’s supposed to be a selfish, cruel bandit. The film doesn’t just strain credulity; it pummels credulity in the face.

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