Tuesday, April 27, 2010

At the Movies

I’ve been meaning to write about a movie that I saw earlier this year (the best thing I’ve seen in 2010 so far), but now a couple of others have piled up. So I’ll get to the best at the bottom of this post. But I’ll start with Greenberg.

A big fan of Kicking and Screaming, a lukewarm admirer of The Squid and the Whale, and someone who avoided Margot at the Wedding because of how bad word of mouth was, I was expecting Greenberg to continue Noah Baumbach’s odd trajectory from sentimental wise-guy to curdled misanthrope. In some ways, it does, but I liked it more than I thought I would. It grew on me. I enjoyed the second half more than the first. Still, my two most prominent thoughts about it are both criticisms: First, the lovely Greta Gerwig (at left) is more complicated and interesting as Florence than Ben Stiller is as Roger Greenberg. (Roger is staying at his brother’s family’s house in California while they’re on vacation in Vietnam, and Florence is the brother’s personal assistant, who develops a relationship with Roger while he’s in town.) The opening scenes are of her alone in her car, and in many ways it feels like it should be her movie. With just a small bit of editing, and some different scenes near the end, the movie could have been called Florence, and I think it would have been stronger for it.

The second thing is something not unique to Greenberg, though it’s potently represented by it. It’s a general thought about the depiction of depressed people in movies. Greenberg has recently gotten out of the hospital after a nervous breakdown, and he treats Florence very badly. It’s possible that Greenberg is just a miserable person who anyone with even a modicum of social normalcy would ignore. But if I may, based on both Florence’s reactions to him and my own experience in life with people who are depressive, I would say it’s more likely that Greenberg is a roller coaster. It’s not that there aren’t people in the world who are just black clouds, pure and simple. It’s just more common that people who are depressive compensate for that (naturally, not calculatedly) with any number of other “skills,” like humor or intellect or storytelling. Thus, when the black cloud appears, the memory of those skills gets them some leeway from people that they might not otherwise enjoy. The problem is, Greenberg doesn’t attempt to show the roller coaster. Whatever Roger’s charms might be, they’re well hidden. It’s undoubtedly difficult -- both for a screenwriter and an actor -- to convincingly show highly complicated, dichotomous behavior within the course of two hours or so. But it might be rewarding to see them try more often.

I watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) over the weekend. Directed by Peter Yates (who also did the great Breaking Away), it only occasionally follows Coyle (Robert Mitchum), a small-time crook trying to decide whether to snitch on his clients, focusing instead on a broad range of bank robbers, gun runners, and hit men. The Criterion Collection’s DVD is, as always, terrific. As other people have noted, the movie’s soundtrack (in that cheesy 1970s land between funk and porn) has not aged well, but it’s not that distracting -- and even fits, since you couldn’t mistake the setting for any other time period. Everything else is great. The penultimate and final scenes, in particular, are perfectly done. You can watch a scene at the Criterion site, and see A. O. Scott’s video review of the movie here.

OK, now for the early best of 2010. Fish Tank is the second full-length feature by British director Andrea Arnold, and the acting debut of Katie Jarvis, who plays 15-year-old Mia. Jarvis is 18, and was noticed by a casting director while arguing with her boyfriend at a railway station. That’s a perfect story, because Mia is the angry working-class daughter of a single mother. Passionate about dance but disaffected about everything else, Mia’s life is changed by the appearance of her mother’s new boyfriend. The cast is uniformly excellent, but more importantly Arnold is a supremely assured filmmaker -- the look and feel of the movie make even the most minor moments part of an original whole. Highly recommended.


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