DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of The Squid and the Whale   (The War of the Roses, A Man and a Woman),  Lonesome Jim, Art School Confidential, The Science of Sleep, Keane, The Namesake, Introducing the Dwights, Driving Lessons, December Boys, The Darjeeling Limited (w) Hotel Chevalier, Lars and the Real Girl, Margot at the Wedding, Smart People, Elegy, The Limey, Adam, “500” Days of Summer, Cold Souls, A Serious Man, Precious, Skin, Brothers, Please Give

 

Title:  The Squid and the Whale

Release Date:  2005

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 88 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Films; Sony Pictures International (aka Sony Pictures Classics); Destination Films; Ambush Entertainment

Director; Writer: Noah Baumbach

Producer: Wes Anderson

Cast:   Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Harry Feiffer, Anna Paquin

Technical: flat shoot, Dolby digital

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: divorce; literary agents and writing

 

It’s easy enough to say the theme of this well-promoted independent film: divorce, and its effects on kids. It is based on the dirctor/writer’s own personal experience as a teen. The title suggests the nature of the divorce: the parents are somewhat the Whale and the Squid, minor adversaries (not like “The War of the Roses”) but nevertheless acrimonious enough to cause the cute family cat to run away and, in the final scene, get the older boy Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) to jog to the New York Museum of Natural History to see the exhibit on a conflict between a cetacean mammal and a cephalopod mollusk – a great example of convergent evolution, just like men and women. Okay, the title is then a metaphor for the Masters and Johnson paradigm of Heterosexuality.

 

Both parents (Bernard and Joan, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney – and somehow Jeff Daniels seems too much like Jeff Bridges – he fooled me!)  are “writers” and that makes a good discussion of what that means. The wife is a newbie to the field. This is 1986 (in Brooklyn’s Park Slope), and home computers had already become productive in producing manuscripts. (I used Q&A then.) But computers are not shown. (In fact, Writers Digest had recommended that writers buy machines adapted for writing, not realizing how quickly general purpose small business and home computers would evolve), and the public Internet was still about six years in the future. Economical self-publishing was not really quite feasible yet (Applebaum’s book would soon come out, though) – and that could make for an interesting story idea (I try that in my own scripts). Still, Bernard gets a rejection letter from an agent (“Your work just is not for me!” – all writers get letters like that when they make conventional submissions!) His wife, however, gets published. The two parents have raised two very articulate kids, a 16 year old Walt and a ten year old Frank (Owen Kline). They talk about literature at dinner and make generally interesting statements. Yes, A Tale of Two Cities may not be Dickens’s best work. Yes, Kafka is interesting. And a few other characters are swarming around, such as the has-been tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin).

 

The historical topicality of the year Reagenesque year 1986 is reinforced when the boys go to the movie with “dad” and see David Lynch’s notorious Blue Velvet; a clip is shown, but not the most interesting.

 

Soon Bernard tells the boys that he needs a family conference, and they spill the fact that the couple is separating, probably divorcing. Bernard will move a few blocks away and have the boys half the time. The obligatory sexual affairs will occur (including an affair between Bernard and a female student), and unfortunately the main reason for the breakup is the loss of sexual interest between the parents. (She has had an affair for four years.) Yes, it is hard to remain sexually interested in one partner for a lifetime, which is why collective moral standards are controversial.

 

Another main reason for the breakup is that these are two independent individuals. Joan, especially, seems to have found her own creative personhood. The family unit for its own sake is no longer a sufficient personal goal.

 

This breakup has an effect on the kids. Walt, who is extremely articulate and charismatic as a teen, gets sidetracked in his character. He plagiarizes a book report and, worse, claims to have composed a Pink Floyd song with which he wins a competition at school. His only rationalization is that “it feels like he could have written it.” Well, I take pride in my own creative ownership of my work, and it is hard for me to buy that. But Walt is so likeable, you want him to outgrow this. The school arranges therapy. Both boys engage in sexual experiments: Walt has a real girl friend, and in one scene there is the suggestion of premature ejaculation (as happens in the show TheWB Everwood), where as the younger boy experiments with masturbation in a library. (No, it is not shown completely, but it is strongly implied.)

 

At the end, Jeff has an apparent heart attack, or maybe not, but is hospitalized. You are left hoping that the boys will outgrow their parents, even if the lives split. But you know that divorce and the challenges in out culture to lifetime sexual fidelity have taken a toll.

 

Link on Academic integrity

 

The War of the Roses (1989, 20th Century Fox, dir. Danny De Vito, based on the novel by Warren Adler, screenplay by Michael Leeson, 116 min, R) is famous for the bitter fight betweeh the Roses (played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner), with Danny De Vito the divorce lawyer. The title of course also refers to a famous period of British history. There was a real life case in Florida similar to the movie.

 

A Man and a Woman (“Un homme et une femme”) (1966, Allied Artists, dir. Pierre Uytterhoeven) is a famous romantic French film about the potential of heterosexuality, with a famous theme song. Jean (Jean Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Anouk Aimee) meet at a boarding school that their children attend. A relationship grows slowly and overcomes all inhibitions and barriers. 

Bee Season, Spellbound, and Akeelah and the Bee are moved to this file.

 

Lonesome Jim (2006, IFC/Indigent, dir. Steve Buscemi, 91 min, R, digital video) is a nice little regional family drama happening where northern Indiana wants me, like in the song. Is this about blood loyalty and family responsibility, or is it about personal failure, or is it just about a lack of freedom? Jim (Casey Affleck) has returned to Indiana from New York where he worked as a dog walker for rich people, and as a waiter, while he tried to make it as a writer. He moves in with mom and dad (Mary Kay Place and Seymour Cassel). He has a penchant for saying insensitive things to family members that get followed by disasters. He tells his older brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) that while he (Jim) is a f…up, Tim is a “tragedy.” Tim tries to commit suicide by running his car into a tree and winds up in a coma. So Jim has to take over more family responsibility, including going to work in his mother’s ladder factory. He says something unkind to his mother, who gets arrested for drug dealing, when it is actually another older family member Evil (Mark Boone Junior) who looks disgusting with his obesity and middle aged balding legs, who was doing it. Now Evil, in fact, doesn’t have a checking account (when I worked for a collection agency, some of the collectors didn’t have checking accounts themselves, and almost none of the debtors did!)  Evil gets Jim to innocently launder some money for him before Jim realizes what is happening. In the meantime, Jim has struck up a sexual relationship with a nurse Anika (Liv Tyler). If Jim is a writer, why does he write everything longhand? Why is there no computer? This film is an interesting directorial effort (and debut?) by Steve Buscemi, normally a character actor. I saw this film at a Landmark Theater in Washington DC and a number of people from Indiana who have been extras in the movie were in attendance.

 

Art School Confidential (2006, United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Terry Zwigoff, story and screenplay by Daniel Clowes, R, 102 min, USA). One of my own scripts has a similar premise: an “artist” invites himself to be set up for a fall, and goes to jail in order to have his work performed. Mine is really dark indeed, as the artist must die first to become known and live forever. This variation of the story works as film noir and satire, if it seems a little jumpy as a plot. Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) is a sensitive freshman at the wild Strathmore Institute (fictitious) in New York City. It rather looks like the South Bronx. He is surrounded by goofy roommates, students, and professors. There is frankness about the economic “uselessness” of art as a major – instead go to business school or “web design school” if you want to make money. All the while the noble B major theme from the slow movement of the Beethoven “Emporer Concerto” plays intermittently, hinting that all of this has bigger meaning. John Malkovich is his professor Standiford who acts obviously gay, even as the students brag about their quests for women. Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) is a ragtag artist living nearby who advises Jerome that he will have to make the right gay couplings to sell his work. In an early scene, there is a male nude mode who is shaved everywhere, and that really means everywhere. Mysteries and intrigues pile up, including an occasional strangling on campus.  Jerome, a nice boy at first who always protects himself with an annoying gray undershirt, starts to deteriorate quickly into drinking and smoking. He makes a couple investigative visits to Jimmy (don’t worry, he is straight and in love with model Audrey (name not from the Little Shop of Horrors, played by Sophia Myles) – the second time pretty drunk when he vomits onto Jimmy’s rug and leaves a cigarette burning in the firetrap as he leaves.  And Jerome draws pictures of the victims as great art, as if they were drafts of his own self-portrait. He is trying to find himself as an artist. The cops catch up with him. In prison, he will be able to sell his paintings. But did he really kill the women? We can guess from his voluntary associations and visits who the killer could have been. He can get off. The NYPD comes across as a bit like the prosecutors in the 2006 Duke cases.

 

The Science of Sleep (“La Science des reves”, 2006, Warner Independent Pictures/Gaumont, dir. Michel Gondry, France, R, 105 min) starts out with handsome Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane (whose background matches the actor’s), mixing ingredients with kettle and ladle—“relationships, friendships and all those ships.”  The metaphor communicates the film. The kitchen looks like a room in a kid’s doll house, sort of, and three fourths of the film is in a constricted cardboard world, filled with the knickknacks of dreams (and play cities and play airplanes made of folding cardboard, too). Stephane has come to Paris to visit his mother, who gets him a job as a typesetter, and it is pretty low tech. (The company wants its employees to bond on weekend ski trips, a kind of outward bound.) But Stephane is the visionary “Myers Briggs blue” artist who wants to sell calendars with drawings based on disasters (starting with the 1996 TWA crash; he doesn’t need 9/11). That’s the thing. For Stephane, his imaginary world is so complete, but to others it is so unwelcome and inappropriate. He carries on his relationship with Stephanie, another self, mostly in dreams. There are funny scenes like when he wakes up with his feet in an icebox (fortunately no Kathy Bates is around to chop them off). The music covers modern French, from a Satie-like theme to the atonality of Pierre Boulez. The film is all imagination and style and ideas, and little story as such.

 

Keane (2004, Magnolia/Canary, dir. Lodge H. Kerrigan, 94 min, R) starts out as a one-man schizoid soliloquy, as William Keane (played convincingly as a New Jersey native by British actor Damian Lewis) arrives at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City (who hasn’t? -- or is he already there?) and trolls the city looking for his just missing (and perhaps imaginary) daughter, bothering people at every turn. Though destitute, he gives some money to a single mother Lynn Bedik (Amy Ryan) who has a seven year old daughter (Abigail Breslin). That encounter in the hall of a grungy apartment building is convincing. His other encounters, as one impulsive tryst with a pickup in a disco, can be brutal, and are met with brutal language. Let us say he does not practice self-control. Finally we wonder if his daughter is real. Steven Soderbergh produced this film, and an alternate cut that he edited is said to be better. (It is only about 75 minutes, and in a more logical sequence, so one can see the schizophrenia in Keane's thinking.) Like with "Pulp Fiction" there is a question of time sequence after all. The original cut, however, may have more to say about the existential problem of reality testing, or how we know what is "real"?      

 

The Namesake (2007, Fox Searchlight, dir. Mira Nair, novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, 122 min, PG-13) is an epic family drama about a Bengali family from India reconciling itself with gradual emigration to America. In the 1970s,  Ashkoke Ganguli’s life is saved after a train wreck in India when he is discovered holding a classic book, “The Overcoat” by eccentric Russian author Nikolai Gogol. He marries and moves his wife to New York and has a career as a physicist. He has a son, and because of a custom does not want to name the son immediately, but gives his son the “namesake” of Nikolai Gogol. The son (played by Kal Penn Modi) grows up to be a typical American kid, extroverted, but a super academic performer, ready to go to architecture school. In time, going through one American girl friend and meeting a future Bengali wife, he begins to appreciate his father’s ways, and is devastated when his father dies on a business trip to Cleveland. He begins to assimilate not only the idea of having his own family, according to the social norms of manhood, but also the cohesion and blood loyalty of his ancestral family from India. He also resents the "namesake" which he wants to change into something more neutral and less compromising to his reputation. The visual tricks played with the young man (as he develops) get weird, as he shaves his head and apparently his chest as a symbol of mourning for his father, and then recovers and marries. His mother adjusts and goes back to India. The film has stunning scenery of India, including the slums of Calcutta, filmed on location, and it really needed the full anamorphic wide screen rather than the standard aspect in which it is shot.

 

The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Fox Searchlight, dir. Wes Anderson) is a road comedy with brothers played by Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody becoming reunited with their misadventures in northern India. But what is curious about this film is Fox’s decision to pair it with a prologue short called “Hotel Chevalier” from the same director. Blogger review.

 

Introducing the Dwights (“Clubland”, Warner Independent Pictures /Film Finance Australia, dir. Cherlie Nowlan, R, 105 min). The American title reminds one of “Meet the Fockers” but the comedy here is more subtle. A divorced aging club comedienne Jean (Brenda Bleythn) depends on her about-20 year old son Tim (Khan Chittenden) to hold her and his mentally challenged brother Mark (Richard Wilson) together as a family as she tries again to “make the A list.” Tim makes rendez-vous’s with the divorced father (Russell Dykstra) who also dreams of showbiz but works as an airport security screener. At the same time, Tim, who works as a household mover and drives a moving truck (the drive on the left side in Australia, like Britain), is trying to build his own adult life -- including completing his “first experience” with Jill (Emma Booth). Tim fulfills the archetype of “cute”: muscular, a tender baby face, and he is allowed to cultivate and keep his hairy chest, arms and legs. In Australian cinema this seems OK; I think it is just lest prudish. In one scene, Jean makes Tim do drag in one of her acts: no, he doesn’t “shave” and it seems perfectly acceptable for straight people to “pay their dues” by doing drag, following the example set by “Rocky Picture Horror Show.” It doesn’t even symbolize metrosexuality.  The scenes where he tries to “make it” are a bit clumsily directed with out-of-sequence problems; but there is humor, too, as he lets go too soon, to his embarrassment. All of this must be balanced against the tender scenes involving Mark, that are well acted by Wilson, but hard to accept in comedy. The script says he was injured at birth, but in the movie he acts sometimes as if he has Downs Syndrome. Visually, the physical developmental impairment is striking (compared to his brother), and he reminds me of the touchy issue in schools of special eduction. As the movie progresses, he seems able to carry on meaningful conversations and try things, like ice skating. The movie makes no existential judgments but leaves Tim and his split-up parents to make the most of their own personal ambitions. Gradually, Tim must become more assertive and keep his mother under control, for the sake of his brother.

 

There is one sequence, late in the movie, where Jean does an audition (pushed there by Tim), and makes a crude joke about men not eating before sex because one could vomit during sex. The judges confer among themselves, offended by her humor. The very next scene shows the boys playing cricket in the street. The sequence is similar to one in my script “Make the A-List”, available online (in the screenplays director), but there a young actor has a complicated audition and the beginning of the film, that brings up disturbing retrospects from the past life of one of the judges, and that long audition sequence is followed by a whiffleball game!    

 

Driving Lessons (2006, Sony Pictures Classics / Content Film, dir. Jeremy Brock, 98 min, PG-13) has 18-year old redhead teen star Rupert Grint (known as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as a shy teen Ben Marshall, henpecked by a religious mom (Laura Linney) who takes a job as housekeeper and companion of aging actress Evie Walton (Julie Walters). The job becomes more intimate as Evie starts demanding attention from him. On a bus, she accuses him of a “lack of curiosity” and “social autism.” She explodes when he finds her private pictures, but then has to be helped to the toilet when he finds her on the floor throwing up. She may be dying, and they go on camping and road trips, with Ben, having failed a driving test, acting as chauffeur. At one point, she swallows a car key to keep him out, and lets it pass in pooh. She gets invited to Edinburgh for a reading, and while Rupert stays at the hotel, another older actress “initiates” him. Finally, things will have to come to a head with his mom.  Grint already looks quite buff and bulked up for these roles, almost like he would become competition for Tom Welling.

 

Early in the film there is a fragment of a sermon in which the priest, after saying that following the Golden Rule is essential to becoming a Christian, says, “True freedom is the capacity to explain the Truth.” There is one line where Evie is told that she is known on the “gay scene” despite her not having worked in a long time; in a deleted scene Evie speculates whether he could be a latent gay—all of this despite Evie’s insistence that she would hire only a “Christian” as a confident. Ben only starts speaking up about things during his “relationship” with Evie. The DVD also has outtakes where actors forget their lines. The movie went took five years to make from the writing of the script. Nicholas Farrell and Jim Norton also star. 

 

December Boys (2007, Warner Independent Pictures / Village Roadshow / Becker, dir. Rod Hardy, novel by Michael Noonan, 105 min, Australia, PG-13) gives us Daniel Radcliffe outside of the Harry Potter world. He plays Maps, the oldest of four boys born in December (like June in Australia), raised in a Catholic orphanage, are sent on a holiday and “compete” to be adopted by a family. Maps is old enough, though, to want to be on his own and to experiment with Lucy (Teresa Palmer) in scenes that are somewhat clumsy. He has his own religious and moral battles to fight, leading to some near-death apparitions, even under water.  The time is the 1960s and the scenery has that pseudo-California look. At the end, the film tells us what happened to the boys by the present day, and Maps was willing to take the vows of celibacy. This is a very proper Catholic film.

 

Lars and the Real Girl (2007, MGM, Sidney Kimmel, dir. Craig Gillespie, wr. Nancy Oliver, PG-13, Canada) starts Ryan Gosling as an Aspie type man who, after moving in with his brother’s family, buys a sex toy playmate doll over the Internet and enlists a whole town in his outgrowing his boyish need. The film is a pretty workmanlike example for actors and writers of the potentials of a situation. Blogger review here.  

 

Margot at the Wedding (2007, Paramount Vantage, dir. Noah Baumbach, 92 min, R) seems even goofier than “Squid” above and to me the characters were a bit hapless. Author Margot (Nicole Kidman) invites herself, despite knowing she will be unwelcome, to the wedding of her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a somewhat lost old soul Malcolm (Jack Black) who probably “needs” a wife. Malcolm is a little bit embarrassing to look at, a bit like a seal with a pot belling and absolutely hairless chess; the movie at this point would almost be saying “there’s somebody for everyone.” It seems that “they have to get married.” But the real problem (a premise we know of from the ABC series “October Road”) is that Margot uses family members and situations in her stories, apparently, and her presence at the Long Island beach house for the wedding weekend will uncover family secrets. But there is also the issue that some of the “secrets” will probably not be true, such as the beach beating based on a suspicion by Jim (Jon Turturro) that Malcolm had an inappropriate pedophile relationship with his daughter. Margot brings her less than impressive son (Zane Pais) alone, and the son at one point utters a bizarre line connecting homosexuality to Asperger’s syndrome. The trouble here it that once rumors and impressions fly, nobody has much of a chance to establish the truth. 

 

Despite the amorphous material, the movie does have some foreshadowing: the tree climbing and rescue scene, to be followed by the sawing and fall-down, right on the wedding site. 

 

Smart People (2008, Miramax / Groundswell, dir. Noam Murro, 93 min, R) Okay, this is a film about knowledge for its own sake. The widower Carnegie literature professor Lawrence Wetherford (Dennis Quaid) is bossy and self-righteous (with the beginnings of a gut), and has forced his way into the New York publishing houses to get his “You Can’t Read” published. His son James, (Ashton Holmes) is the nicest character in the bunch, and doesn’t say much but gets a poem published in the New Yorker. It’s interesting how a 30 year old looks like a 17 year old until he takes off his shirt in his one sex scene. (One can compare his quiet manner with that of Paul Dano in “Little Miss Sunshine:”).  Sis Vanessa (Ellen Page) has been characterized by others as a teen Anne Coulter, and she cuts no one any slack, carrying her personality from “Juno” to its logical conclusion. Lawrence falls and gets a concussion when he tries to “steal” his car our of impoundment (all the guards are former students who got Cs and Ds from him), and has to accept the “help” of his deadbeat adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church) who has shown up and crashed and could take interest in Vanessa (who is not blood related). And a nurse Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) can bore into his life, too. The comedy doesn’t make people like this likeable; it makes them into laughing targets.

 

Elegy (2008, Samuel Goldwyn / Lakeshore, dir. Isabel Coixet, novel “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth, 106 min, R, Spain/Canada) A literature professor (Ben Kingsley) reviews his Manhattan life (filmed in Vancouver) as he has an intermittent relationship with an ex-student (Penelope Cruz). He loves her body, all right, and then there is a hiatus. She calls him on a New Years Eve and she tells him that she has advanced breast cancer and that her body will be “ruined.” The movie becomes a moral test of his character. Another male friend and fellow professor has a stroke and dies in his arms. Kingsley is my age, has his head shaved, his chest hair gray, and he hasn’t gone bald in the legs. He’s got all the spunk in the world. Blogger discussion.

 

The Limey (1999, Artisan, dir. Steven Soderbergh). A British ex-con (Terence Stamp) comes to LA to resolve the mystery of his daughter’s “accidental” death. Blogger  (See “Keane” above.)

 

Adam (2009. Fox Searchlight, dir. Max Mayer, 99 min, PG-13) has Hugh Downey as a mostly gentle engineer with Asperger’s, finding romance. Blogger.

 

“500” Days of Summer (2009, Fox Searchlight, dir. Marc Webb, 95 min, PG-13). An out-of-sequence story of a young man’s attempt to woo a disinterested woman. Interesting technique.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is positively virile. Blogger.

 

Cold Souls (2009, Samuel Goldwyn, dir. Sophie Barthes, 101 min,PG-13, USA/Russia). A company extracts and buys souls from people’s brains; Paul Giamatti’s turns out to be a chickpea.  His girl friend opens him up and finds him “scaly.” Blogger.

 

A Serious Man (2009, Focus/Working Title, Joel and Ethan Coen, 105 min, R) Family matters for a nerdy physics professor whose life falls apart. Biting satire of Jewish life. Blogger.

 

Precious (2009, LionsGate, dir. Lee Daniels, book “Push” by Sapphire) Blogger.

 

Skin (2008, Magnolia?/Jour de Fete/BBC/Elysian, dir. Antony Fabian, 110 min, UK/South Africa)  Blogger

 

Brothers (2009, LionsGate, dir. Jim Sheridan, 110 min, R, USA) Blogger.

 

Please Give (2009, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Nicole Holofcener)  examines “hollow giving” by a wealthy NYC businesswoman, who has bought an apartment hoping the resident will die. Blogger.

 

Related reviews:. A Door in the Floor    The Dying Gaul    Finding Forrester  Antwone Fisher    Good Will Hunting      Blue Velvet   The Perfect Score   Music of the Heart  La Dolce Vita    Bee Season, Spellbound, Akeelah and the Bee   Dreamscape   Meet the Fockers   The Journey

 

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