Film Carew

14 June 2012 | 12:47 pm | Anthony Carew

The Cabin In The Woods is a misunderstood work botched by the suits charged with delivering it to the world.

In Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, there is no titular character. Instead, its title is —a little oddly— taken from a poem read aloud herein: Gerard Manley Hopkins' Spring And Fall; which, if you keep a keen ear to its meter, intones shared emotional terrain and, even, this business of the titling: “no matter, child, the name: sorrow's springs are the same.” Hopkins' poem possesses those most perennial themes —the forward march of time, the sad sting of existing, the inevitability of mortality— and warns youthful readers of how their fiery young hearts will grow colder, their lives more painful, their baggage greater. There are many verses read aloud in Margaret, which features recurring scenes of the children at a liberal private school in New York discussing King Lear, Israeli/Palestine relations, and September 11 from the passionate position of their sheltered privilege; yelling their way through arguments with an unavoidable sense of subsuming delusion. As if this weren't enough leaning on other artforms (and/or social constructs), Margaret also spends plenty of time at the theatre, and even more at the opera. Lonergan uses these more-ancient artforms to give rise to a complex —or, perhaps, convoluted— study in the tempestuousness of adolescence; as embodied in the fiery form of Anna Paquin, who turns in an astonishing performance as a teenager in turns sarcastic, self-lacerating, childish, morally righteous, incisive, virgin, and seductress. If the idea of True Blood's ever-bonin' Sookie Stackhouse playing an underage dame of intact hymen seems idiotic, fear not, this is not some piece of Gabrielle Carteris casting. Though arriving on cinema screens in 2012, Margaret was shot in 2005 (Olivia Thirlby looks about 15 in a way-in-the-background role), and initially intended for release in 2007. The studio and Lonergan couldn't agree on an edit of the film —the Murdoch suits set a 150-minute ceiling, Lonergan wanted a version that rolled out past three hours— and lawsuits begat lawsuits; Margaret eventually becoming a $14mil film-biz write-off which two producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, didn't survive to see released. It was finally turned out unto the world in 2011 —with Lonergan only conducting a handful of interviews for it in the presence of his lawyer— and, in some corners, picked up some cachet as cause célèbre; critics ever fond of what can be contorted into a righteous crusade on behalf of art over commerce. All this back-story really suggests is that viewers welcoming Margaret's Australian season are in for a bumpy ride: strapped in for a long film that —no matter the critical barrow you push— doesn't quite work (even if you want to push the position that it doesn't quite work... in an amazing way).

Paquin stands at the centre of the picture as teenager who witnesses a woman (Allison Janney, buggin' eyes beneath a pall of blood) run over in a bus accident that she may or may not have been responsible for after distracting the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo, whose turn as working-class Guido —with Rosemarie DeWitt submitting something similar as his gum-snappin' wife— is one of the film's many bum notes). From there, our not-Margaret —Lisa Cohen, as she says on the phone countless times in the film— must try and balance her life: juggling regular adolescent exploits like going to class and losing her virginity and understanding the power of her own sexuality (ie: seducing Matt Damon), yet also dealing with police, the elusive veracity of her statements, the weight of her debt to both dead woman and driver, and the slippery burden of her own guilt and moral complicity and self-identified victimisation. She, in her youthful naivety, mounts a crusade to make things 'right', even as she does things (ie: seducing Matt Damon) that are so obviously wrong. In short: over 150 minutes, Lonergan throws a lot of shit at his main character, and some of it sticks. The countless scenes in which Paquin and her on-screen mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's off-screen wife) scream at each other, hurling insults and abuse with the open-channel warfare of the poisoned domestic dynamic, are among the movie's best. Lonergan himself plays Paquin's absent-father, who is positioned as eternal other: calm and affable and vague and zen and just slightly buzzed; but his mumbling delivery and realist approach seem less like contrast, more completely out-of-place, as if he's a refugee from another, better film (like, say, Margaret's predecessor, the pitch-perfect 2000 drama You Can Count On Me, in which his mumbling took the film to quietly-transcendent places). That Lonergan is miscast in his own movie is, of course, luridly symbolic, suggesting that the auteur of this world is confused; or, at least, that he doesn't quite have it in him to make the leap into the operatic, hysterical excess he seeks to summon. All those scenes in opera houses —replete with climax at the feet of Offenbach— set the excessive tenor of the drama; and when the best friend of the dead woman (Jeannie Berlin, who if she was supposed to be insufferable and annoying and half-dead, sure did a great job) screeches at our teenage charge that the adults surrounding her are “not supporting players in the great drama of your life,” the themes of Margaret are spoken aloud. Yet just because the characters talk us through things doesn't expedite the drama: even the short-cuts feel as if digressions, taking us the long way in a story plenty long enough. It's a sure sign of the mess Lonergan is in when pieces of written convenience somehow don't produce clarification, but only further obfuscation.

The Cabin In The Woods has, like Margaret, become a critical crusade for a fervent few: it, too, is a misunderstood work botched by the suits charged with delivering it to the world. Shot in 2009 and initially intended for a 2010 release, it hasn't been rolled out with grand ambition; arriving on screens, in Melbourne, as a late-night cult picture. The film is, effectively, the most meta horror-movie ever made, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard taking apart the tropes of genre with a cold, critical eye; authoring something that feels as much like examining essay as it does a horror-movie unto itself. At the start, we get the usual: five good-lookin' college students en route to a spooky, secluded cabin for a weekend of debauchery. Only, it's soon revealed to be an elaborate experiment; these kids being pushed into genre archetypes then thrown as live bait for marauding evil entities; laboratory mice playing out the pantomime of horror clichés for a watching audience. From there, things get super-silly and deliberately, hysterically over-the-top, to the point where the criticism starts to seem less biting, the take on the bloodlust of fanboys growing less incisive when the picture, itself, submits to bloodlust. Critiquing a genre from within that genre itself is quite the cinematic parlour-trick, and its one The Cabin In The Woods certainly isn't up to.

Le Chef is a gastronomically-themed rom-com whose existence barely deserves to be dignified. Here, a bumbling everyman who also happens to be a mystically-talented master of the culinary arts (Michaël Youn, mugging) falls into a fateful partnership with a four-star'd celebrity-chef-as-institution (Jean Reno, in a role surely written for Gérard Depardieu), in which, essentially, a rag-tag gang must come together at the last minute to overthrow a manipulative, money-obsessed boss-as-villain and live happily ever after. If that weren't formulaic enough, our 'hero' also lies to his wife about his new job, leading to tedious French-farce scenes of kept-up ruses, plus those inevitable convenient dramatic disappointments and third-act reconciliations. Whilst it's obvious why a picture like this is on screens in an era of Masterchef, sadly everything around the constant scenes of food preparation and immaculately-plated dishes is somewhere between predictable, annoying, and depressing.

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