Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Using real movies to date shelved movies

It was surreal last night watching Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan's long long LONG delayed opus about a teenager girl processing a fatal bus accident she may have caused.

That's in part because none of the teenagers are even close to being teenagers anymore -- and one of the adults looks so young in this movie, he could actually play a teenager.

Margaret was "released" -- sort of -- last year, and has hit DVD within the past month. But it was shot at some point in the increasingly distant past, although at first I couldn't guess how long.

But then, that central teenager (Anna Paquin, now 30) goes on a date to the movies with the boy who likes her (John Gallagher Jr., 28, who now appears as an adult on The Newsroom). As they arrive at the multiplex, very clear in the shot are the names of three films that were really playing in this theater during principle photography: Flightplan, Roll Bounce and Serenity.

All three of which were released in late September of 2005.

Now that's what you call a long gestation period.

When making Margaret, Lonergan couldn't have known that his follow-up to You Can Count on Me would languish epically, on various shelves and in various states of turnaround, due in large part to debates about the length it needed to be to tell the complete story. Had he known, he surely would have been careful to shoot around the names of movies that could have dated his production so definitively.

But you needn't share this particular compulsion of mine -- figuring out when movies were shot using real-world background information -- to identify Margaret as a relic from another era. You need only look at the baby face of Matt Damon, playing the math teacher upon whom Lisa (Paquin) fixates. He could have been playing her classmate rather than her teacher.

Now, Damon has always had a baby face, and he shot Margaret right around his 35th birthday. But just think about how many other movies he's worked on between then and now. In fact, you could argue that the seven years since have witnessed the ascension of Damon onto the A-list. Using that September 2005 date as a starting point, Damon appeared in Syriana, The Brothers Grimm, The Good Shepherd, The Departed, Ocean's Thirteen, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!, Invictus, Green Zone, Hereafter, True Grit, The Adjustment Bureau and Contagion, all before Margaret was finally "released" (on only two screens) last September 30th. Although there was ultimately a token expanded release to a few more screens, the $12 million film ended up grossing less than $50,000.

Of course, those intervening years have also featured Paquin's entire run on True Blood, in which she has developed quite a different appearance, including being blonde most of the time.

Who else looks really young? Well unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast is comprised of people old enough so that their appearance doesn't change too dramatically over a seven-year period, such as Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Allison Janney and Mark Ruffalo. But two other younger actors seemed even younger than they are: Olivia Thirlby, whose career has built some heat in the last couple years, and Kieran Culkin, the middle Culkin brother, whose younger brother Rory appeared in You Can Count on Me (as did Ruffalo). Though to be fair, it's hard to specifically say which Culkins look what age, because they don't work regularly enough not to be confused for one another.

I could tell you more of what I know about the troubled history of the production, but I got a lot of it from this compelling article, so I suggest you do the same. If you need extra incentive, I'll give you this: None other than Martin Scorsese took a crack at editing this movie.

What I will tell you is that Margaret is a big, ambitious, scattershot but ultimately rewarding contemplation of, well, almost anything you can think of. In a movie that would not otherwise seem to require it, the film tackles a bunch of post 9/11 New York stuff that reminded me a lot of Spike Lee's 25th Hour (perhaps because Paquin appeared in that one as well, only three years before Margaret was shot, and there are some similar themes surrounding her character). It's the kind of film that doesn't only develop its main characters, it develops its side characters, and spins them off on tangents that have only a flimsy relationship to the rest of the plot. Somehow, it works, and Margaret is worth the 2.5 hours, if you have them. (Having rented the movie from Netflix, I didn't have the option of checking out the three-hour Lonergan cut. I guess if I ever intend to, I'll have to find somebody who champions the movie enough to buy it.)

If Lonergan ever summons the courage to make another movie, I'm guessing we'll see a) a shorter script, and b) no movie theaters where you can read the marquees. 

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