Playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 directorial debut, You Can Count on Me, was an indie hit, receiving a number of awards and generating the kind of buzz that heightens expectations for a follow-up. In 2005, he set cameras rolling on that sophomore effort, Margaret, which stars Anna Paquin as a Manhattan high school student who accidentally causes the death of a pedestrian and then engages in futile attempts to somehow set things right. After shooting, though, Lonergan set about the arduous process of editing a sprawling and ambitious film that he saw as a massive three-hour piece. The studio saw things differently, and it took six years of arguments and legal wrangling for the film to finally see the light of day, in the two-and-a-half-hour version that opens this week at West End.
This shortened version (the full cut will have to wait for DVD) was unceremoniously dumped by its distributor, Fox Searchlight, which screened it in only a handful of theaters with barely a hint of promotion. But then a curious thing happened: While the reviews from the handful of critics who were able to see it were mixed--many cities, including DC, didn't even get press screenings last December when Margaret was initially released--the critics who liked it were bowled over by it, even as they admitted its faults. Nearly all of those reviews can be boiled down to: "It's a mess. But it's a mess that you must see by any means necessary." The most vocal of these critics campaigned tirelessly to arrange more screenings and even a slightly expanded release. It's thanks to them that the film's theatrical run, while always extremely limited, has extended for months beyond that initial dumping. This week it finally makes its way to one DC theater; hopefully dedicated film fans who have been waiting months and years to see the film will turn out to support this kind of rare filmmaking ambition.
Philippe Falardeau's film about an Algerian substitute teacher who takes over an elementary school class after the suicide of their beloved teacher was one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Film at last year's Academy Awards. Nominees in that category are typically heavy in theme, and to some extent this film is no exception. But there's a lighthearted inspiration infused throughout Monsieur Lazhar that makes it also touching, but never maudlin. The familiar notes of the educational drama are all here, as a teacher with a style somewhat foreign to his students and peers attempts to win over his class and his fellow teachers. But the French know how to mine this territory better than most--the wonderful documentary To Be and to Have, and Laurent Cantet's excellent 2008 film The Class immediately spring to mind--and Lazhar is no exception. The result is largely a feel-good film that never feels compelled to blunt any of its rougher edges.
Aardman Animations may not put out a lot of films--the company made a name largely on the strength of director Nick Park's Academy Award-winning Creature Comforts and Wallace & Gromit animated shorts, and this is only the fifth feature film it's released in 12 years. But the consistent quality and immediately recognizable style of stop-motion style have made any new Aardman film something to look forward to. For its latest, Aardman cofounder Peter Lord co-directs with Jeff Newitt an adaptation of one of Gideon Defoe's comic novels about a band of misfit pirates who encounter historical and literary characters along their journeys. In this film, that's Charles Darwin (a caricatured version, best not confused with an accurate historical representation), who meets the pirates when they try to pillage his ship, and realizes that the pirates' pet "parrot" is actually a dodo bird, thought extinct for more than 150 years. That sets the group on a course for London and a science convention where Darwin (David Tennant) hopes to wow the scientific community, and the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) hopes to score some loot and impress his peers enough to give him the Pirate of the Year award. Needless to say, things don't go quite as planned, but it's just as fantastic a ride as one expects of Aardman.
Writer, actor, and Georgetown grad Brit Marling returns following last year's Sundance darling Another Earth with Sound of My Voice, which she also cowrote, this time with director and fellow Georgetown grad Zal Batmanglij. The film, which also premiered at Sundance last year, is a psychological thriller that finds Marling playing the leader of a cult who claims she's from nearly 50 years in the future. Two documentary filmmakers infiltrate the group in the hopes of debunking the whole situation, only to find things are not quite what they seem.
Documentary filmmaker Ben Rivers made a short film about Jake Williams, a hermit living a solitary life with his cat and a handful of birds, released in 2006. He returned to Jake to make this feature, an experimental, black-and-white documentary that spends most of its time simply observing the man going about his daily activities. There is a momentary nondocumentary touch that takes this further from anything audiences are used to, but it's a singular experience that New York Times critic found well worth the time when she wrote about the film's screening in the "Views from the Avant Garde" section of last fall's New York Film Festival.
Next Thursday, May 3, at 8 PM at the Hirshhorn.
DVD Pick of the Week: The Innkeepers
There's never a shortage of low-budget horror films springing up in theaters and disappearing as quickly as they arrived, taking in huge amounts of money their first weekend before folks realize they were never much good to begin with. Director Ti West makes small, low-budget horror films with a twist: They eschew shock value and cheap scares in favor of creepy atmosphere and thoughtful, deliberate pacing. His films are the kind of scary movies we should demand, rather than the ones we get and often accept.
While filming his modern cult classic House of the Devil a few years back, West and his crew stayed in a Connecticut hotel called the Yankee Pedlar, which was rumored to be haunted. Running with that idea, West decided to make a decidedly old-fashioned haunted house movie. In his film, it's the last weekend the Pedlar is open, and two disinterested clerks are riding out the final days in the mostly empty hotel, passing the time by trying to collect evidence of the place's ghosts. Nothing much happens for most of the film--just the two of them talking--but it's just that resistance to easy scares and commitment to slowly building tension that makes West one of the best, most underappreciated talents working in horror today.
You can read my full take on the film, and my interview with director Ti West, over at the Atlantic.
Special Features: Two commentary tracks, both with West, one featuring actors, and the other with the producers and the sound designer, plus a making-of featurette.