Margaret – A Review

August 20, 2012

Most movies blithely celebrate self-absorption.  The highest tenet of most movies is: me, me, me.  Lead actors (and audiences) are used to being flattered for their sentimentality and easy moralising.  So it’s strange to encounter a film where the main character is challenged about her egocentric beliefs.  Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore effort as director is a complex, spiritually urgent story about conscience and consciousness.  The title, Margaret, comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, where a young girl’s first experience of grief serves as a painful step towards spiritual maturity.  In a sense, this is a familiar coming-of-age story, but one where true self-awareness comes from separating selfish “me” from what is meaningful.

When she inadvertently causes a terrible accident, teenager Lisa Cohen is confronted with the arbitrary injustice of life.  A stranger literally dies in her arms, and Lisa spends the rest of the movie trying to make sense of this senseless death.  At first, understandably, she is traumatised.  She wants only to forget about the accident.  Later, when she can’t forget, she decides she wants somebody to blame.  Lisa thinks of herself as a moral person, but her story isn’t about the virtue of doing the right thing.  The world of this movie is (to quote Swami Vivekananda) “a moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger spiritually.”  In short, Lisa’s values have no worth until they’re tested by the world.

Some critics have called Margaret a “post-9/11 movie”, but it’s so graceful in its allusions, you don’t become aware of them until you pause to reflect.  There is no crude allegory at work here.  Nor does recognising these allusions detract from the drama, or reduce any single character to the status of a puppet, or make the audience feel duped.  The central premise of Margaret just fits with reactions to 9/11 because it’s a movie about the insane difficulty of seeing someone else’s point of view.  It’s about how we communicate with people who aren’t like us; how we “falsify” people by making assumptions about them; how strident we become when we only listen to one voice.  What’s amazing is that it doesn’t get touchy-feely.

Lisa is not an angry teenage cliché who learns to love by the end of the movie.  Or rather (and here’s the really clever part), she is an angry teenager who learns to love by the end of the movie, but the screenplay is neither gloopy nor clichéd.  Lisa might take a superficial point of view about certain subjects (the accident, U.S. foreign policy), but there’s nothing superficial about her character.  She is both a manipulative, self-centred drama queen and an extremely moral, eloquent idealist, and it’s these contradictions that make her human.  Like the rest of the cast, she’s a pain-in-the-ass sometimes; things happen which bother her and she doesn’t respond with the equanimity of a saint.  Half the time she’s too busy reeling.  She’s as smart, if not smarter, than most of the people she meets, and yet they never speak or react as she anticipates.  As we all know, it’s frustrating to be wrong when you know you’re in the right.

New York is the ideal setting for this story because it bristles with life.  Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t want to make a movie where everyone learns to get along.  There’s nothing sappy or “Spielberg” about Margaret.  Moral choice in this film is not (the usual movie guff) about choosing to be good when the alternative is to be bad; it’s about how difficult it is to be objective.  Conflicting points of view abound in this story.  Lisa scarcely opens her mouth and she’s caused offence.  She lives in a city full of unabashed humanity; smart, complex people surround her, all jostling for the spotlight.  As one woman scolds Lisa, with righteous indignation: “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!”

This movie wants to rattle spectators.  You’re not safe in your little narcissistic cocoon.  You don’t get to act superior to Lisa, or to pretend you know what the right thing is she should do.  You’re in her shoes.  Your heart’s scrambled.   I dare you not to cry.  What makes this movie truly great is that it doesn’t ask you to switch off your brain so it can move you.  The crackle of ideas isn’t doused by sentiment.  This movie is adamantly against a purely emotional response to complex issues.  In the poem which inspired Margaret, the key line is where the poet speaks of how, in her maturity, the young woman “will weep and know why”.  Feeling, alone, is not meaningful.  It’s what feeling connects us to that we call profound.

Infinite Jest – A Review

August 10, 2012

“You have a chance to occur…To make for you this second world that is always the same: with always a purpose to keep this world alive.”  So says a wise old tennis instructor.  The key to understanding David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece is the concept of human agency: the gift of choice, and how, if you abdicate your responsibility to choose, “if you just love, without deciding, if you just do…Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment.  Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiments.  You become a citizen of nothing.  You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.”  Addiction (the big theme of this book) is a way of hiding from real life.

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The Dark Knight Rises – A Review

July 23, 2012

Here’s a movie that can’t win.  We’ve already had the definitive Batman.  Unforgettable scenes are already in our heads.  Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his immortal turn as the ultimate villain.  There is no way to top The Dark Knight.  No reason, ever, to want to go back; unless, of course, you count money.  And it’s fair to say, the one thing new movie doesn’t lack is adequate funds.  Bruce Wayne goes bankrupt in this film, in what could be read as an in-joke about exorbitant costs.  The Dark Knight Rises is bigger in every way than its predecessor.  But you can’t buy lightning in a bottle.  No paycheque will bring Heath Ledger back.  As Bane, the muscle-bound new villain has to learn, there are limits to bulk.

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Killer Joe – A Review

July 2, 2012

I like vulgar movies.  I’d pick a vulgar movie over something “tasteful” any day.  This isn’t specifically because I like to be shocked.  I just think there’s more life in so-called bad taste.  William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (based on a stage play by Tracy Letts) is a good example of what I mean.  Very little of what happens in this movie is pleasant.  It starts with scheming, betrayal and a middle-aged woman brandishing her pubic hair, and it only gets wilder from there on out.  If I didn’t like the movie, I’d say it was lurid.  But I did like it, so I say it’s vulgar.  I grant you, the difference between the two words is subjective, perhaps even spurious.  If I had to try to define it, I guess I’d say I prefer the baroque to the grotesque.

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Prometheus – A Review

June 10, 2012

Every prequel is a badly told joke; the kind where the comedian shoehorns-in extra details, adding “oh yeah, and the penguin was Jewish” after the punch-line.  Prequels are even worse than a bad joke, in fact, because what they add is always unnecessary.  They’re the story before the story, based on a false premise: that the audience cares what happened before.  This is the worst kind of craven, Hollywood-thinking.  In effect, a prequel says: we’re so out of ideas, so lacking in integrity, we’re not even satisfied with copying good ideas (in sequels) any more.  We need a new way to defame the original, so we’ve come up with this: the prequel, wholly useless and asked-for by no-one.  I give you: Prometheus.

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The Raid – A Review

May 22, 2012

Any action becomes monotonous when it’s repeated too often.  Even fist-fighting with drug dealers gets boring, after the hundredth brawl.  Yeah, yeah… another bone-crunching blow to the jaw.  Blah, blah, blah… another psychotic kick to the ribs.  You can’t muster enthusiasm for ass-kicking indefinitely; beyond a certain point, you’re being hectored more than you’re being thrilled.  The new action movie, The Raid, suffers from inertia because it doesn’t know when to stop.  Like the continual motion of a washing machine, the film’s constant velocity lulls you to sleep.  “Oh, they’re fighting again,” is all you can think, as the pummelling goes on.  Turns out, it’s a thin line between a bravura fight sequence and flogging a dead horse.

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The Pale King – A Review

April 25, 2012

“Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed.  For they are real.”  So we are warned, by David Foster Wallace.  His novel, The Pale King, is a clerical epic, set in the catacombs of the Internal Revenue Service, where men and women fight against the “soul murdering” nature of their dreary, repetitive jobs, and the “true heroes” embrace boredom, as a path to bliss.  Wallace believes in enlightenment through wilful attention to complexity.  The enemy here is not tedium but the idea that the majority of life is tedious.  Boredom is the coward’s way out.  A hero welcomes monotony.

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