REVIEW: Margaret

30 04 2013

MargaretIt’s hard to talk about authorial intent in “Margaret” when the studio interference on the project was so insane.  Long story short for those who don’t know: the movie was supposed to be released in 2007, but Kenneth Lonergan failed to lock in a cut to Fox Searchlight’s satisfaction.  Ultimately, they quietly dumped a version of “Margaret” into the theaters that was much shorter that Lonergan would have liked.

And indeed, what I saw in the theatrical cut (sorry, folks, did not drop the money to watch the director’s cut) was a little messy.  But for whatever reason, that didn’t bother me.  I was along for the ride with “Margaret” the whole way through, drawn in to the story by its imperfections.

There’s something very fascinating about knowing that a movie’s flaws are not something invented in your head.  And in such a realization, you can start to find the diamond in the rough by peeling away the layers of sloppiness you observe.  “Margaret” in its very journey to the screen is not about the drudgery of life but rather the painful process of art.  There’s a little bit of magic in getting to find your “Margaret” inside of what Fox Searchlight and Lonergan slapped together for us to avoid litigation.

My “Margaret” is a compelling drama of post-9/11 guilt and anger unfolding in New York City, told from the perspective of an ordinary girl, Anna Paquin’s Margaret.  On just any old day walking, she observes the death of innocence at the hands of a vast piece of machinery.  No, I’m not talking about the planes flying into the World Trade Center; I’m talking about a sweet old lady being struck and killed by a bus.

I don’t want to overload the allegory, though, but it’s impossible not to feel the legacy of the tragic day looming over all the proceedings.  On a human scale, it’s an affecting tale of a mother (J. Smith-Cameron’s powerfully acted Joan) and daughter, a teacher (Matt Damon’s earnest Mr. Aaron) and a student, as well as victims, perpetrators, and observers.  And that’s the beauty of watching the imperfect “Margaret” – doing your own internal rack focusing is not just encouraged.  It’s practically required to make sense of the events.  B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 7, 2011)

7 01 2011

It’s a new year for the “F.I.L.M.” column, but more importantly, it’s the home stretch of the Oscar season!  Soon enough, the intense politics will start to die down and we will just be left to reflect on the performances and the movies.  To celebrate the season, the next seven weeks of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” series will be devoted to covering little-seen and underrated gems from the 2010 nominees.

This week, I’m unequivocally recommending “The Professional,” Natalie Portman’s first movie, made when she was just 12 years old.  It’s an especially fun watch for any of Portman’s fans who have followed her work for many years as most of the mannerisms and techniques she still uses are on full display here.  It’s a little rougher, sure, but “Black Swan” was hardly the first time she commanded the screen.  16 years ago, she delivered a stunning performance of incredible mastery for someone so young.

As Matilda, Portman plays a tough young girl out to get revenge on the ruthless and merciless hitman, Stan (Gary Oldman), after he massacres her family including her four-year-old little brother.  While she hated her abusive and neglectful parents, the thought of someone slaying her younger brother makes her run to the assassin across the hall, Leon (Jean Reno).

The “cleaner” on the floor is a bit of a loner, executing his jobs with professionalism and precision.  Leon takes Matilda in at first for her own protection but reluctantly keeps her after she wins a sliver of his affection.  But she wants something more than shelter; Matilda wants training so she can take out Stan.  Again with reluctance, he agrees, and their time together brings Leon a sort of paternal pleasure.

This intense action movie directed by Luc Besson stands out among stacks of other movies in the same vain because it’s not a movie about the action; it’s about the performances, characters, and the story.  Aside from Portman’s incredible debut, there’s also solid work for Jean Reno, who truly deserves better and prominent roles than he usually takes nowadays.  And Gary Oldman also shines as the borderline demented killer Stan, so frightening and so brash that he makes for one heck of a villain.  Oldman really is one of the most utilitarian actors working today, and “The Professional” really does show that off.

Yet somehow, even at 12, Portman steals the movie in a manner indicative of how she would rule the screen for the next 17 years.  Sure, it’s child’s play compared to “Closer” or “Black Swan,” but anyone who made a bet back in 1994 on her becoming an Academy Award-winning actress could be cashing in big time pretty soon.