Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Avengers" and "Margaret" - messy, but full of life

Double dose of Mark Ruffalo this weekend, and you’ll hear no complaints from me about that! I have to say the Ruff’s appearances were much more satisfying in one film than the other – and much to my surprise, it was in the superhero-stuffed popcorn flick that his character was more fully developed.

In fact, as a general matter “The Avengers” did a better job handling its large ensemble cast than “Margaret,” something I would not have predicted a year ago. Neither film is what I’d call tightly structured, but “Margaret” as an end product suffers more from its messiness than “The Avengers” does. On the other hand, “Margaret” left me very curious about what got left on the cutting-room floor (and no, I’m not necessarily talking about more Ruffalo, though I can’t imagine that that would be anything but a bonus), which is rarely the case for most movies I see, good or bad.


directed by Joss Whedon
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel Jackson, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Stellan Skarsgaard, Colbie Smulders, brief cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow

“The Avengers” isn’t a masterpiece. It doesn’t rewrite the formula for comic book blockbusters. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is – a major studio summer “tentpole” movie building on previous tentpole movies with the goal of maximizing studio profits on the Marvel franchise. What the movie does do, and do quite well, is create a recognizable human, and human-scaled, team dynamic among its superhuman protagonists that’s immensely fun to watch.

Much of the credit for this modest but crucial measure of success goes to director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Serenity”), who knows a thing or two about how teams of misfits come together and shows it in a multitude of small moments, witty touches and snatches of dialogue that quickly and efficiently establish distinct character traits, tensions, and camaraderie. The rest goes to the cast, who manage to leave vivid impressions as individuals while generating convincing, if slow-burning, chemistry with each other. Iron Man, unsurprisingly, is the showboat of the bunch, with RDJ at his rapid-fire best as the incorrigibly cocky, quippy billionaire inventor who might be as brilliant as he thinks he is. But he’s well balanced by a natural foil in the more self-disciplined, less self-aggrandizing Captain America (Chris Evans, who continues to radiate quiet decency and appealing squareness) – the war hero displaced, Rip Van Winkle-style, from his own time – and an unlikely buddy in mild-mannered fellow science geek Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo, using his natural affability to good effect), a/k/a the Hulk in less mild moments. Even the relative newcomers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), bring just enough emotional charge and back story to make us want to learn more about them, while Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury is content to remain a coolly enigmatic figure at the margins, more recruiter and liaison than director or mastermind. Sometimes less is more.

Alas, that isn’t true for Thor, the one Avenger who falls a little flat, at least in this go-around. Not through any fault of Chris Hemsworth, who hardly lacks charisma, but rather because the movie strips away most of the narrative arcs that shaped his previous big-screen appearance without giving him anything new to work with: Thor’s full immortal powers have been restored; he’s no longer a total fish out of water, having gained some familiarity with Earth and its inhabitants; and the human girl he took a particular shine to is nowhere to be seen. The only plot thread he’s left with is his ongoing personal beef with stepbrother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which doesn’t really get developed so much as subsumed and merged into the Avengers’ collective beef with Loki. That shift also has the effect of making Loki a much less morally ambiguous (and thus less interesting) villain than he was in “Thor.” Here he’s simply a power-hungry psychopath, albeit a very entertaining power-hungry psychopath whom Hiddleston plays with enjoyable gusto. While the mechanics of his eeeevilicious world-dominating scheme can be a little fuzzy, there’s nothing fuzzy about that monomaniacal glint in those ice-blue eyes.

In the end, though, “The Avengers” is first and foremost about the Avengers; the particular plot and villain they’re assembled to foil remain secondary to the plot of their assembling and jelling, grudgingly, with fits and starts, into a true team. I’ve said almost nothing about the movie’s action set pieces or special effects, and I’ve little to say except that they’re there, they’re competently executed, and do not require 3D viewing to appreciate. The real special effect here is the rapport between the Avengers. Come for the spectacle, but stay for the characters.



written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
starring Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin, Olivia Thirlby, Allison Janney, others

What is “Margaret”? Almost easier to say what it isn’t. It’s large, it contains multitudes. It’s a film about adolescence and loss of innocence, and the human need to make moral sense out of senseless tragedy. It’s a tribute to a lovely Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. It’s a bombshell performance by Anna Paquin – her best since, well, “The Piano.” Above all else, perhaps, it’s the six-year-delayed follow-up to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s near-perfect debut film, “You Can Count on Me” – a follow-up that almost perished in the editing room and, later, the courtroom.

As anyone knows who, like me, has monitored Lonergan’s career since YCCoM, the making of “Margaret” was a labor of love that almost turned into love's labor's lost. As detailed in a recent New York Times article, Lonergan reportedly wrote a brilliant, sprawling screenplay and turned it into a brilliant, sprawling film that, no matter how he tried, he just couldn’t cut down to the 2 ½ hour length he’d promised the studio. At the same time, he rejected his producers’ efforts to bring in outsiders to do the cutting, eventually causing one exasperated producer to pull half the funding – which in turn led to litigation that dragged on for years. By the time Lonergan finally did cobble together a 2 ½ hour cut of his beleaguered film, the studio’s budget and patience had run dry, and “Margaret” was only released in a tiny handful of theaters, with no fanfare and almost no promotion. Given this unpromising history, it’s a small miracle that “Margaret” – at least the version released to theaters – isn’t a complete disaster. (An extended three-hour cut is scheduled for release on DVD later this summer.) I wouldn’t even call it an interesting failure so much as an incomplete success. It feels like an unfinished work because, in a sense, that’s exactly what it is.

The film ostensibly focuses on a tragic bus accident, precipitated by a NYC schoolgirl named Lisa (a very young Anna Paquin) who distracts the driver (Mark Ruffalo) at a critical moment, and Lisa’s subsequent efforts to make amends to the family and friends of the victim (Allison Janney, in a fairly thankless blink-and-miss role). However, it spends just as much time detailing numerous other aspects of Lisa’s daily existence – from her prickly relationship with her divorced parents (Lonergan and J. Smith-Cameron, married in real life) to her heated classroom skirmishes with her fellow students to her awkward explorations of her burgeoning sexuality. While this narrative approach might feel rambling and directionless to some viewers, what we see of Lisa’s environment, and how she functions in it, offers insight into her response to the accident; in fact, the accident itself is, in one sense, just another trigger – albeit a violent one – for her attempts to grow up already and take charge of her world. She reacts one way initially, motivated by guilt, then another, driven by more guilt and a desperate desire to restore the shattered moral order of her universe. To some, her zeal in pursuing reparation and, later, her despair at the futility of her endeavors, may tap into the post-9/11 sensibility that Lonergan admits influenced his conception of the movie. To me, it captures something at once broader and more specific to Lisa at her particular stage of development: confronted – probably for the first time in her life – with inexplicable horror, she grasps at adulthood’s tools (the law) to shore up the moral certainties of her childhood.

“Margaret” can be maddening at times, centered as it is on the largely self-created drama of a bright but callow teenage girl who’s annoyingly convinced she’s right and often quite strident about it. Lonergan rarely departs from Lisa’s perspective to show us anyone else’s, which might be why only a tiny handful of characters other than Lisa have any real presence in the film. Among these, Jeannie Berlin is a standout as the best friend of the bus accident victim; J. Smith-Cameron is quite good as Lisa’s stage-actress mother, Joan; and Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno have brief but memorable moments as, respectively, one of Lisa’s teachers and Joan’s gentleman friend. The rest of the cast – including Ruffalo as the bus driver and Matt Damon as another one of Lisa’s teachers – barely register, though one senses that key scenes involving these characters were probably cut to fit the 150-minute mark. Perhaps for the same reason, the film’s pacing is uneven – it lingers too long on some moments, cuts off others too abruptly, and introduces still others even more abruptly. It’s possible this jaggedness is meant to reflect Lisa’s helter-skelter consciousness, but it seems more likely a byproduct of Lonergan’s editing struggles.

Still, even in its choppy, truncated form, “Margaret” is worth seeing. As in “You Can Count on Me,” Lonergan’s dialogue is remarkably attuned to how real people from the real world – albeit an admittedly narrow, privileged corner of the real world – actually talk, and pokes fun at their follies with gentle wit. The classroom scenes, in particular, are excellent. And even the most mundane moments yield, when least expected, a glimmer – sometimes a pang – of recognition. The film’s also worth seeing for Paquin alone, who’s outstanding as Lisa in all her precocious, headstrong, self-righteous glory. Paquin, far from soft-pedaling Lisa’s unlikeable qualities, inhabits every inch of the character, warts and all, with such force and conviction that you can’t look away. By the time Lisa has her final moment of catharsis (while taking in “The Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met, for which I give Lonergan infinite brownie points), earned or not, you feel it, too.


At moments: A

Anna Paquin: A+

Overall: B/B+


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