Saturday, August 25, 2012

Catching up with one of last year's best: Kenneth Lonergan's surprising MARGARET

Given this movie's own back-story -- years in the making, law suits, a new score, and finally even a new cut that's half an hour longer than what was theatrically released (and that was already two-and-one-half-hours long) -- it would be easy to joke that the tale of the making and release of MARGARET is more interesting than the movie itself. Yet Kenneth Lonergan's film is so unusual, so riveting from scene-one onwards, full of some of the finest performances of the year, and about so much that is important to us in our post-second-millennium world, that it is a must-see for all these reasons -- and more.

Anchored by the star performance of Anna Paquin (shown at right, with Mr Lonergan) as Lisa Cohen, a smart, angry, envelope-pushing high school student coming of age in the midst of some traumatizing events, the movie, which was begun not that long after 9/11, asks questions that most narrative films don't get near -- What is our responsibility to ourselves, and to others? What is our place in the world? When (and when not) ought we take a stand against authority? -- and while it doesn't provide easy answers, it makes us at least consider these questions. To answer an immediate question: Yes, Ms Paquin looks older than most high school students, but as the movie was being made over a five year period, how could she not? (In any case, we should by now be used to films with too-old-looking high-school kids -- a staple since my first experiences viewing cinema back in the 1940s.)

This film is so very much better, and so much more important to the history of cinema, than Lonergan's first (and far too favorably received movie You Can Count on Me) that its minimal release in theaters strikes me as a terrible waste. Fortunately, enough critical acclaim at the time of release and continuing after has led to renewed interest in the film and will, I suspect, keep it percolating in the minds and hearts of film buffs for a long while.

The movie is full of terrific scenes, one after another, beginning with one of the film's strongest, an unforgettable accident (above: that's Allison Janney as the victim) brought about in part by Lisa and a bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, below.

From there we move in and out of the home and classroom, where scenes of family life, education and sexual initiation are shown us from angles we've not seen before.

Two fine actors, Matt Damon (below, left) and Matthew Broderick (above, right) play teachers in classes taken by Lisa, and both get very telling scenes to play --- one that pits the pomposity of the educator against the student's lesser knowledge but greater understanding, the other exploring responsibility when a student intentionally gets too physically close.

Best of all is the chance to see again that wonderful actress Jeannie Berlin, below, left, who has done almost no work in movies or TV over the past 35 years. Maybe the best thing in Margaret (and there is a lot of competition), Ms Berlin is indelible as the accident victim's good friend, an angry New Yorker who must "tell it like it is," everything else be damned. It occurs to TrustMovies just now, as I write this, that perhaps it is into just such a woman that our Lisa might grow up. Berlin's final speech to Paquin is about as memorable as anything I can recall from this past movie year.

On the home front, we have Lisa's hugely self-involved actress mom, played by J. Smith-Cameron (below, left), who brings to her role enough selfishness to annoy us and enough confusion to make us root for her (well, now and then). Lisa's dad, divorced and living in a nice beach-front house in what might be Malibu, is played by the writer/director, and Mr. Lonergan proves aces in this small but telling role. In the other more-or-less major role is French star Jean Reno, as an South American businessman smitten with Ms Smith-Cameron's actress, whose character demonstrates once again that, where love is concerned (to paraphrase Pascal), the heart has its own unreasonable reasons.

One of the joys of this movie is how rounded, real and pretty much equally right and wrong are all its characters. Lonergan allows us to understand the place that each of them is coming from,  whether or not we approve of their actions. This adds to the veracity of what's on display, at the same time as it reminds us again of how difficult it is to get at truth and justice -- let alone The American Way.

Margaret is available now on DVD and Blu-ray -- and in both the theatrical cut (which runs 150 minutes) and the extended-cut version, which I believe lasts 180 minutes. So you've got a decision to make before you view. Yours truly opted for a Blu-ray rental (the transfer's a good one), but on Blu-ray you get only the theatrical version. If you purchase the Blu-ray, it comes with a bonus DVD featuring the extended-cut version. I don't know if and how you can rent the extended cut, but I would certainly like to see it. Sitting through another half-hour of this movie would have been no problem. Hell, I could have sat through another three.

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