One From Noah Baumbach: ‘Margot at the Wedding’

Margot at the Wedding poster

Noah Baumbach must have had one messed up childhood. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” which chronicled a divorce filled with animosity and the of effect it ended up having on the kids. In 2007 he gave us “Margot at the Wedding,” which focuses on two sisters who do their best not to explode at one another. This is sibling rivalry at its most vicious and with sly attacks throughout until the inevitable showdown where the wounds and scars reveal themselves in all of their hurt and anger. Once in a while, you will get a movie which shows the loving power of a family and how they all come together as one. This is not that movie.

Nicole Kidman stars as Margot, who is heading into the country to attend her sister’s wedding. With her on this trip is her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) who she dotes on with increased restlessness. 2007 was a tough year for Kidman as the films she starred in, be it “The Invasion” or “The Golden Compass,” were not at as successful as they were expected to be. She was at one point the most underrated actress in movies with unsung performances in movies like “To Die For” which she was unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination for. Following her Oscar win for her role in “The Hours,” she looked to be stumbling in movies underserving of her talent. Her performance as Margot, however, reminds you of just how brilliant and fearless an actress she can when given the right role.

Margot is a bitch with a capital B, and she is one of the most unsympathetic and spiteful characters you would ever want to see in this or any other motion picture. She is cruel to those who love and hate her, and she even reacts coldly at times to her son by saying something about his appearance which could not be any less true. Kidman tears into the role with gusto, and she never tries to sweeten this character up and make her more likable than she ever could have appeared in the script. She is fearless in her portrayal of Margot, and she even lets us see beneath the character’s cruel mask to reveal the pain her character feels inside. You never completely sympathize with her, but you do come to pity her.

Margot’s sister Pauline is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the former Mrs. Noah Baumbach, and it is great to see her here. Her portrayal of Pauline makes the character pitiful in a whole other way. While Margot is cold to those around her, Pauline is much more vulnerable and is skillful in the way she throws her sister’s carefully placed insults right back at her. Pauline seems to be striving for a happiness which is just out of her reach. Leigh works at keeping her cool around Kidman’s character, but you can see through her eyes that the last time these two sisters met, it resulted in a brutal confrontation which kept them apart for years. It takes a great actor to make you see things about their characters without having to tell you what they are.

Pauline is about to get married to an unemployed musician/painter named Malcolm, and he is played by Jack Black. This is Black at his most unglamorous as he portrays Malcolm as a sad sack of a man who never looks all that happy about the fact he is about to get married. His character is utterly depressed and lost about what he wants out of life. There are times where Black falls back into those mannerisms we know him best for, and they do take away from his performance at times. But for the most part, he is really good here as he is cast against type in a more dramatic role.

In many ways, this movie is a prolonged attack leading to an explosion of emotion which we can tell has been repressed for far too long. How long you ask? Years, maybe even decades. You know the first time these two sisters meet each other that there is still bad blood between them which is eventually going to spill over. They say they are no longer mad at each other, but we know this is not true. Tension fills the air as these two test one another’s patience, and they continually betray each other in their own subtle ways.

“Margot At the Wedding” is not quite as effective as “The Squid and The Whale,” and it is easy to judge the two in comparison because they deal with the same thematic elements. They deal with broken families, divorce, parental neglect, underlying feelings of anger and resentment, etc. It has been said the best directors make the same movie over and over again, be it Hitchcock or Spielberg or anyone else. Baumbach’s specialty is in the dysfunctional relationships which he was exposed to when he was young.

Either way, you will most likely come out of this movie thanking god your family relationships are nowhere as bad as they are portrayed in this movie. You think you have it bad? Wait until you watch this.

* * * out of * * * *

De Palma

De Palma poster

When it comes to interviews, filmmaker Brian De Palma always seems rather remote or looks like he would rather be somewhere else. In an interview about “Redacted,” he flat out told the interviewer he was simply there to sell his movie, and the interviewer replied perhaps De Palma was enjoying his company. To this De Palma replied, “I don’t think so.” So aside from him crushing the interviewer’s ego, his reply illustrates how uncomfortable he gets when talking about his movies. Perhaps this is why he has never done an audio commentary on any of them to date.

But this is the real joy of watching the documentary “De Palma” as he seems more than willing to spill the beans about his life and the inspirations behind his work. It also helps that it was directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, filmmakers De Palma has been friendly with for several years. Whether he’s talking about his greatest works like “Carrie” and “Scarface” or facing up to his critical and commercial disasters like “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the revered filmmaker holds nothing back as he discusses each of them with a sense of humor which shows how he’s dealt with the movie industry and the way it has treated him over the years.

Now De Palma has often been accused of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock, and the documentary does start off with scenes from “Vertigo,” a movie now considered to be the greatest ever made. De Palma said he was so compelled by “Vertigo,” and we can see how this particular Hitchcock film influenced much of his work. However, the documentary gives us a deep overview of his films and how he drew inspiration from other filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard. He also explains the purpose of using split screen as it allows the audience to put everything together for themselves.

One of the real treats of “De Palma” is how it looks at the director’s upbringing, something we haven’t heard much about in the past. He never had much of a relationship with his dad, he says, who was an orthopedic surgeon which had him growing up around a lot of blood. This certainly explains why blood has played a big part in his movies whether it’s the prom scene in “Carrie” or the chainsaw scene in “Scarface.” We also get to see actor Robert De Niro, who appeared in De Palma’s movies “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom,” at the start of his career long before he played Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

From there, we get to view his movies in chronological order and of how his work as a filmmaker evolved from one decade to the next. Now granted, this might make certain viewers a little impatient as they might want to skip ahead to his stories about “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Untouchables,” but it’s sitting through the others before them that shows De Palma’s evolution as a filmmaker and how he managed to pull so much off despite intense pressure from studio executives and the MPAA.

Looking at these descriptions, “De Palma” may sound like just another talking head documentary. In a way it is, but to dismiss it as such would be unfair. De Palma is such an interesting guy on top of being a brilliant filmmaker, and I loved how he looks back at his triumphs and struggles with an almost gleeful sense of humor. He has been through a lot of heartbreak and struggles throughout his life, and it’s kind of a relief to see him laugh at some of the darker moments he was forced to endure.

What both Baumbach and Paltrow have pulled off is more than just the average documentary on a filmmaker you often see on cable. They present us with something which feels more like a friendly conversation with someone who is not always so open, and it’s a real pleasure to sit back and hear him talk. At the same time, “De Palma” also provides us with a look back at the great filmmaking period that was the 1970’s and how that period will never be repeated again. Then again, I have no issue with people proving me wrong there.

But perhaps most importantly, “De Palma” shows us a filmmaker who managed to stay true to his own voice despite working in a business which, as he puts it, makes you lose your own way. Even as he began working with bigger budgets and movie stars, he still tried to stay true to what he wanted to accomplish, and you come out of this documentary admiring him for that. And unlike other filmmakers who were stubbornly resistant to changes in technology, he was quick to utilize them whether it was high definition filmmaking in “Redacted” or the advent of music videos in “Body Double.”

There are many surprises and interesting bits of trivia to be found throughout “De Palma,” and I would rather you discover them for yourselves. What I can tell you is that this is one of the best movies, let alone documentaries, I have seen so far in 2016. It is infinitely interesting and a must for movie buffs and aspiring filmmakers. Whether he intended to or not, Brian De Palma has provided us with a master class in directing many would be smart to watch as the movie business is one which can tear an auteur’s vision apart out of fear or for the sake of profit. But here’s a man who, for better or worse, has done things his own way and continues to do so from one movie to the next.

And while it may be wishful thinking, here’s hoping it will give studio executives enough of a reason NOT to remake “Scarface.” We’ve already seen what others have done to “Carrie” for crying out loud.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * * out of * * * *