Never having seen writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 directorial debut, You Can Count On Me, I had no reason to guess that the amauteur, whose writing credits include dreck like Analyze This (and That) and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, would have in him a melodramatic epic of truly artistic proportions.
Bad Day. Mark Ruffalo stars as a bus driver whose focus on an alluring Anna Paquin leads to a fatal accident in Margaret.
But it took a while to get there. Completed years ago and having sat on the shelf till now, his latest, Margaret, has gone through legal battles, multiple cuts -- the theatrical of which was edited by Martin Scorsese and his long-time cutter Thelma Schoonmaker -- and a disastrous release after Lonergan was taken off the film and then allowed to return to produce his own cut.
The theatrical release of Margaret is a bad film. At two-and-a-half hours, the scenes lay flat, the editing is haphazard and clunky, and the world has no ambience at all, much less a strong directorial focus. But here's the odd part. Add an additional half hours' worth of footage and scenes breathe, the narrative flow becomes sublime and the world comes to life. In other words, the theatrical cut of Margaret is bad. The director's cut is a near masterwork.
Margaret follows Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 19-year old Manhattanite student at a prestigious, upscale prep school. Lisa is a virgin, growing into her overt sexuality, living with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) -- a stage actress -- and her brother, while chafing at the conventions of her privileged life.
One day she gets a bee in her bonnet to find a cowboy hat, scouring the Upper West Side to no avail. That is until she spots one on the head of an MTA bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). Distracted by the pretty teenager attempting to get his attention, the bus runs a red light, hitting and killing Monica (Allison Janney). Lisa, left holding Monica in the last moments of her gruesome end is too shocked to tell the truth to the police about her hand in the accident, the bus driver escaping responsibility until Lisa's pangs of guilty force the truth to the surface. She seeks out the family of the deceased and mounts a campaign to make the driver pay.
Finding a place somewhere between Robert Altman and P.T. Anderson, Kenneth Lonergan's sprawling Margaret is a masterful, melodramatic character study. But what's really amazing is how that extra half hour really makes all the difference. What before was a flat, weightless and meandering film, becomes suffused with depth and great directorial focus.
What made the difference? Longer scenes breathe more readily, but Lonergan also reworked the sound design adding layers of depth with a few great choices in overlapping conversations -- indeed, in one long tracking scene the focus is on a conversation between Lisa and a boy who's crushing on her, Darren (The Newsroom's John Gahllagher Jr.) slowly pulling in on them as we hear the cacophony of conversations around them, but not what they say. Their body language speaks for them.
Also, the film was re-scored. Again this seems like a minor thing that actually makes all the difference; the lilting music of the theatrical cut replaced by an operatic, soaring score that compliments the long, gorgeous tracking shots of the New York skyline. Everything about the director's cut is not just an improvement, but elevates Lonergan's Margaret from tedious melodrama to sublime world building and character study, where the melodrama comes from a more natural place of knowing pathos.
Margaret looks stunning -- the cinematography of Ryszard Lenczewski (Tabloid) is flawlessly executed capturing New York in the kind of gorgeously personal tableau that recalls Woody Allen, but it's really Lonergan's direction the takes this 188 minute epic and renders it into an effortless journey.
Performances are remarkable, from Paquin -- who is not even terribly likeable, but totally sympathetic -- and Cameron-Smith, to Jean Reno, in a sweet turn as the hapless love interest to Lisa's mother. Supporting turns from Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo are fine, though Matthew Broderick seems a bit superfluous--not to mention annoying, on principle.
Some movies demand your time and effort to seek out, to enjoy and experience. Margaret, in its new director's cut, is certainly deserving of the energy. While it's inferior theatrical cut is available right now On Demand, find the director's cut DVD. You will not be disappointed.
Neil Young Journeys
Jonathan Demme, besides being responsible for the great adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, directed, hands down, inarguably, to this day, the best concert film ever shot with Stop Making Sense. It's the kind of concert film that's so great that you don't even have to be a Talking Heads fan to get into it, and chances are you'll be one by the time it's over.
Open Neil. Singing takes center stage in concert documentary Neil Young Journeys.
Now, Demme embarks on his fully third Neil Young documentary and second concert film, and the results are far more personal than the director's aforementioned Once in a Lifetime masterpiece.
Neil Young Journeys documents the legendary Canadian crooner as he gives a one-man performance at Toronto's Massey Hall (sans Crazy Horse) and follows the aging family man as he embarks across Ontario in a '56 Crown Victoria, following his brother on a trip to visit the location of their family's rural home that burned down years earlier.
Young tells stories of his childhood, like the old kid named Goof who could talk Young into everything from calling old ladies bad names to eating tar, talks of his old family, neighbors, children, his father -- a famous writer himself who has an elementary school named after him. His trip in the idyllic northlands is soothing in its pastoral setting as it is with Young, who has been around so long and been so honest in his music, that we feel like we really know the guy.
But as pleasant as all that is, it's really the haunting performance from Young at the Massey Theater that is the draw of Journeys. Young, alone with either acoustic or electric guitars, or piano and organ, belts out mournful renditions of classics and newer material, the set list a nice mix of familiar and fresh.
"Down by the River," "Ohio," "A Sign of Love" and "My, My, Hey, Hey" all make appearances, and director Demme captures Young's basset hound visage and train siren in the night vocals, with some expert and innovative camera work.
The film is a comforting visual feast, but that pales next to the stunningly executed sound design that captures Young's performance in gorgeous, rich and aurally textured waves. Bass so fat dogs can't hear it combined with Young's amazing sustain makes Journey's sound incredible. And isn't that what anyone really wants out of a concert film?
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