AFI Fest 2007: Day 10

margot-at-the-wedding-001-250.jpgMargot at the Wedding
USA 2007

“I haven’t had that thing yet where you realize you’re not the most important person in the world.” – Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) comes from a snooty, east coast, literary type family. When she returns to her family home for the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a bohemian slacker named Malcolm (Jack Black), sparks fly, old family resentments bubble up and it’s all presented for the audience’s amusement.

The good news is that it’s often bitterly funny. Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has a knack for mining uncomfortable emotional territory for laughs, always managing to leave a slightly bitter aftertaste, just enough to make it feel real. He’s also got a terrific eye and ear for little character and story details. The performances by Kidman and Leigh are also perfect. Both actresses expose the flaws in their characters while maintaining the sympathetic humanity underneath. Margot is the iciest and most flawed of the bunch, but you can’t help feeling sorry for her thanks in large part to Kidman.

The bad news is that I don’t identify with the characters and the movie itself overall doesn’t add up to much for me. My family is neither upper class, east coast nor literary and our ties aren’t strong enough that we can continue to get under one another’s skin like we did as kids. If a sibling bugged me as much as Margot and Pauline, I would never see them. It’s that simple. Pauline says “It’s hard, I think, to find people you love more than your family,” but it doesn’t ring true here. I’m not convinced these people actually love each other. They’re simply locked in mortal competition with one another. Perhaps that’s the point, but even then I can’t help but think “Get over it.”

Margot at the Wedding is still good, but I’m afraid I was hoping for a little something extra. It opens in limited release on November 16, 2007.

insearchofamidnightkiss.jpgIn Search of a Midnight Kiss
USA 2007

This microbudgeted indie from a group of Austin friends transplanted to Los Angeles (“The city where love comes to die.”) has been the nicest surprise of the festival.

Ever since he broke up with his girlfriend and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams as an actor, Wilson’s life has taken a turn for the worse. Unable to find work or love in the alienating urban expanse, the thought of enduring one more New Year’s Eve without someone to share it with is too much. His soon-to-be-engaged roommate Jacob convinces him to place an ad on Craig’s List.

The result is a 5 minute test date with pretty, but possibly unstable Vivian. She’s interviewing a bunch of men to see which one is worthy of being at her side at midnight on New Year’s. It’s the best chance Wilson is going to get and he has nothing to lose but make the most of it.

The story then follows the pair around the city (beautifully and romantically captured in glorious black and white) as they get to know one another leading up to midnight. The story makes a couple of missteps here and there that threaten to ruin the momentum it has built up, but it never falls on its face and it rallies in the end.

The character of Wilson could easily have been identifiable but unsympathetic and annoying as the mopey loser, but Scoot McNairy infuses him with just enough charm that he’s easy to root for. Sara Simmonds and Brian McGuire are even better and more convincing as Vivian and Jacob. McGuire especially gets many of the best lines and he delivers them with a laid back humor that lets him be funny even if he’s being kind of a pig. Most importantly, there is a real chemistry between Wilson and Vivian and Midnight milks it for all it’s worth.

I don’t know if or where this movie is going to play, but anyone who has ever known what it’s like to be alone should seek out In Search of a Midnight Kiss.

smileyface-001-250.jpgSmiley Face
USA 2007

Gregg Araki’s female take on the stoner comedy starts out very strong and very funny. How did Jane (Anna Faris) end up on top of the ferris wheel at Santa Monica pier talking to Roscoe Lee Browne in her head? It all began with a lot of marijuana, of course.

There is a Harold and Kumar vibe here as Jane’s pot fueled day takes her from one adventure to another. Can she make it to her 11:30 audition, pay off her dealer and replace her creepy roommate’s cupcakes she’d earlier scarfed down before it’s too late? And how does the Communist Manifesto fit into it all? Smiley Face answers all these questions and more.

For about 20 minutes I thought a minor comedy classic was unfolding before me, but unfortunately it slowly runs out of gas as it goes along and the payoff never quite delivers on the early promise. This is all pretty familiar territory, but it’s amusing territory and Faris is funny.

I don’t know if Smiley Face will ever achieve the cult status of some of the movies it aspires to, but it’s still worth checking out for anyone who has ever been a little too stoned.

It’s playing for 1 week at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, but its fate beyond that remains uncertain. I think it has a distributor (First Look), but they apparently don’t have plans for a significant release at this time. It’s good enough that it deserves better than straight to DVD treatment, but it will play well on the small screen.

AFI Film Fest 2007 concludes today. I’m seeing The Savages and the documentary about David Lynch. I’m skipping the closing night gala Love in the Time of Cholera. I’m not sure when the awards will be announced, but tomorrow I should have capsule reviews of the last two films plus a recap of my overall impressions.

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16 thoughts on “AFI Fest 2007: Day 10

  1. Ah, I sense…you don’t have a sister. Or at least aren’t one of two sisters. I am, and since I very much have a love/hate relationship with my darling sister, who can get under my skin like nobody else can, I’m looking forward to Baumbach’s latest.

    In search of a Midnight Kiss sounds unbearably indie, but you make it seem worth checking out. If it ever comes to my neck of the woods, I probably will.

  2. I’m still curious about Margot and will hopefully get a chance to check it out (I skipped most of your review) but I have some trepidation about it. We’ll see.

    In Search of a Midnight Kiss sounds somewhat pretentious but then so did Once and I enjoyed the hell out of that movie so why not? I imagine I will be lucky to find this one anywhere other than DVD, so I’ll try to remember to add it into my Netlfix queue.

    As for Smiley Face, I have a strong aversion to Greg Araki. I just can’t see the appeal in his films. They always have some good things going for them, but then he loses me. I don’t know if I’ll bother with this one at all even though I really respect Farris’ comic timing.

  3. I think you missed the point of MATW, the statement rang false because it is, the characters in MATW are trying desperately to be people that they are not even with their family. Why do you think Margot turned round and got on the bus rather than staying with Pauline, her mother and other sister, why do you think she said she can’t live with Pauline? The movie doesn’t really need to spell it out to say “this is what we mean”. They call each other best friends but are they really from what we saw of them together that weekend? It is not a linear movie, it is a movie that shows you clips of their lives and says to you, “true or false?”.

    And yes, it doesn’t matter if you hate a member of your family, the heart will always be torn about loving them since that is what we are meant to feel – love, if you can’t love your family then how are you with people on the outside? These women have avoided each other at all costs except for that weekend, that was the first time they’d seen each other for 3 years so they are not close at all. The statements by these women or characters is not to be taken at face value, they lie and tell the truth simultaneously. When we met Margot on the train, the 2 of the first things she said were lies, you find that out as you go along with the movie.

  4. First of all Amy, thank you for your comment. I think you’re right that there was definitely something I wasn’t seeing about this move…something that slowly started to dawn on me even as I wrote this capsule review.

    The truth is, love them or not, they’re family and they continue to impact our lives in one way or another even when we’re grown up.

    I have to say though, I just saw The Savages this afternoon. It was also about two adult siblings and for me it was equally funny but far more emotionally powerful than Baumbach’s film was. Probably because it was something much closer to my own personal experience.

    Joel, I share your ambivalence about Araki, but Smiley Face was just a straight up comedy and a frequently funny one. I’d recommend you check it out, at least on DVD.

    Hedwig, I had a bad feeling about Midnight Kiss going in, it does sound too indie for its own good, but I can’t resist movies about LA and I was intrigued by the black and white. Despite my reservations, it charmed me almost completely. Yes it had flaws, but for a film shot in 16 days on a shoestring budget, I’m happy to give it the benefit of a doubt.

  5. Interesting that The Savages is mentioned in a Baumbach post because I thought of The Squid and the Whale as I was watching Savages. I loved both and I look forward to seeing Margot.

    It’s also interesting that Araki chose to follow his major breakthrough, the devastating Mysterious Skin, with a film that invites comparisons to Harold and Kumar. Not necessarily bad but interesting.

    Looking forward to the Lynch review, as well as a write up of a certain highly touted thriller by a certain pair of filmmakers.

  6. Also I don’t want to get into a who’s better contest, but Baumbach and now Jenkins are doing things that I wish Wes Anderson would consider, delving into a less self-conscious raw emotionalism. The Squid and the Whale felt like Anderson stripped of all the things that have been bothering me lately.

  7. I too thought Mysterious Skin was devastating. Easily the best film I’ve seen that has explored its subject matter.

    I loved Squid and the Whale, and will see Margot with an open mind but tempered expectations. My wife has a complicated relationship with one of her sisters so I’m curious about whether I’ll be less attuned to Margot’s key dynamics than her.

  8. I also loved Squid and the Whale. I liked Margot, but I didn’t love it.

    I haven’t watched a lot of Araki (yes I know I should catch up with Mysterious Skin), but Smiley Face doesn’t quite seem to fit in with the rest of his stuff. It’s just a pure bong load of comedy. No darkness. No anger. No drama.

    As for Wes Anderson going deep…I don’t know if he has it in him and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. I don’t want to crack open a whole Wes Anderson debate (or maybe I do), but as I’ve said before I don’t find him to be as empty as his detractors like to imagine. There’s an unreality to his work that isn’t shared by Baumbach and Jenkins…their aim at the emotional truth is much less oblique, but there is a beating heart at the center of every Wes Anderson movie.

  9. You have very eloquently championed Wes Anderson’s unique contribution, Craig. I couldn’t agree more. I think of him as someone interested in a particular brand of surfaces and their arrangement – human and inanimate ones created by humans. And he uses these to explore existential angst, and the search for meaning and for connection with others in a way that is solely his own. His characters preoccupations/distractions, weight of personal history, and over-thinking complicate their ability to connect with their hearts. It’s a more abstract, absurdist, and gentle investigation of human experience than Baumbach’s but imo no less worthy.

  10. I have to admit there is a certain remove to Anderson’s surface style and I can see how someone would like him to cut through the bullshit and really get down to it for once. Interestingly, the Coens are frequently accused of similar failings. I think No Country once and for all cuts the crap and anyone who still doubts them will never be invited to one of my dinner parties. I’m just saying.

  11. craig..you mention not idetifying with the chracters because your upbringing was different ??

    huh….anyway if i watched a movie with a character i could idenify with. i guuess the only movie ni’d like wouls enough a guy staring at a computer while wanting a real doll…

    anayway i think the identify thing is over rated. it can make a movie work(better) for you but it’s not a deal breaker.

    bad e.g. i can watch an action movie and maybe think it’s ok even though i know i wouldn’t last 15 seconds in a fight…and yeah i know the wedding thing is a more realistic movie but you get my point.

    and not liking a characters in a movie isn’t a sin….. 😉

    greg araki…. when how about doom generation/nowhere vs juno ?? which one better reflects ‘the kids’. hmm….

    and anyway…i ‘m the weirdo that can relate to things in movie put isn’t expecting to see anything like my life(to boring to film/to pathetic to film)

    but did the wedding movie work more for than the squid one ???/

  12. the tracey fragments and now in search of a midnight kiss. seems you’re running across some cool stuff that hasn’t been written about 7,000 times since… yesterday. and that is awesome craig !!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

  13. I see what you’re saying Glimmer, and I don’t need to identify myself in a movie, but even in an action movie, you indentify with the hero. You understand what they want and you want them to get it. I didn’t understand these characters. I don’t know people like them.

    Furthermore, If I’m going to spend 2 hours with a bunch of characters I wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life, I better take something from the experience. I’d better learn something.

    With The Savages, I understood the characters. I understood why they did the things they did and I sympathized with them even when they were flawed and shitty to one another.

  14. Well, these AFI reviews were written on the fly so it’s not surprising I wasn’t always clear. These were first impressions without a lot ot time to dwell on them. I’m happy to explain and rethink them.

    If you like Nicole Kidman, or Jack Black or Jennifer Jason Leigh, you should check out Margot just because their performances were all really good.

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