This was an auteur-filled week in New York. Director Ang Lee was humble and Focus chief James Schamus was hilarious on Friday night in their conversation with the Museum of the Moving Image about “Lust, Caution.” Noah Baumbach, meanwhile was a bit sheepish and a bit prickly at the Museum of Modern Art‘s screening of “Margot at the Wedding.” And Tim Burton was brief and blunt during his evening with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, possibly in the belief that the audience was really there for a sneak peak at his much-awaited adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”
Ang Lee and James Schamus Tout “Lust, Caution”
On Friday night, the Museum of the Moving Image hosted an evening with director Ang Lee and screenwriter, producer James Schamus, who heads the film’s and distribution outfit, Focus Features. Lee has often been described as unclassifiable as a director owing to the diversity of his films (from “Sense and Sensibility” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to “Brokeback Mountain“), but actress Joan Allen, who introduced the pair, identified the key feature of Lee’s films by calling “The Ice Storm” “the most perfect film I’ve ever worked on, in terms of the entire concept, from the way it was filmed, to the set decoration, to the music, to the performances.”
That perfection is more than evident on Lee’s latest feature, the Mandarin-language “Lust, Caution”, an astoundingly good epic that drew bafflingly little praise from U.S. critics, despite being one of the best films of the year. Regarding the film’s ballyhooed sex scenes, Lee sheepishly called them “my new way of torturing actors,” before pointing out the film’s star Tang Wei in the audience, who carries the entire film despite never having acted in a film before.
Despite the tepid reaction of Stateside critics, the film has gone on to break box office records in China. “It’s a blockbuster,” said Schamus. “‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is just a footnote next to this, it’s crazy.”
Lee did his best on Friday to appear a humble slacker, not at all like the perfectionist described by his collaborators. “I flunked my college examination, and I had to go to drama school instead… When I came to the States, I became director because I couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t get into the acting program.”
Lee’s collaboration with Schamus began after he was awarded $300,000 in a Taiwanese screenwriting competition for his first feature, “Pushing Hands. He also submitted his original script for “The Wedding Banquet,” which came in second. “He came to us, out of the blue, and he said… ‘somebody told me you make movies for $300,000, although somebody else told me you’ll probably steal the money.’ That was the first thing he said to me.”
Baumbach’s non-autobiographical “Margot”
Noah Baumbach is also currently taking a mostly unearned critical drubbing for his “Margot at the Wedding,” the story of a neurotic writer (Nicole Kidman) who returns to her childhood home for the wedding of her estranged sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh). On Tuesday night at MoMA, audiences made their own call at a free screening as part of the museum’s PopRally program.
“I don’t write the way other people do, where you write an outline, and come up with story elements,” said Baumbach afterwards, in a Q&A with Leigh and MoMA’s Rajendra Roy. “I tend to write the characters and let them inform the story.” This may illustrate the crux of the film’s problems: the characters are totally and completely believable, and their interactions, though often cruel or casually undermining, ring true, while what meager plot there is feels creaky and implausible. After the breathless perfection of ‘Squid and the Whale’, it’s hard not to feel let down a bit, yet ‘Margot’ is still such an intelligent, frequently hilarious film that it’s hard to dislike it outright.
Leigh turns in one of her best, least mannered performances as the slacker sister who constantly feels judged by the imperious Margot. “Noah knows me really, really well, so it wasn’t easy to just disappear into my character. Instead, he wanted me to believe I could be this person, using my own nature as nakedly as possible.”
Whatever this film’s faults, it continues Baumbach’s tradition of being so deeply felt by its characters that the audience often concludes much of it is autobiographical. “It’s not autobiographical!” stated Baumbach, emphatically. “They’re personal movies, they come out of me, and there’s a lot of stuff from my life, but nothing in either movie bears any resemblance to anything that’s ever happened to me.”
As an audience member pointed out afterwards, much of the early reviews of the film found Kidman’s character completely unlikeable. Baumbach seemed a bit distressed by this, saying “I don’t think any of us knew she was so unlikeable until we read a review.” The film opens around the country on Friday.
Lincoln Center Hosts a night of Slashing and “Sweeney” with Tim Burton
Wednesday night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted “an Evening with Tim Burton” at the Rose Hal in the Time Warner Center (aside: please finish with the renovations to Alice Tully, already; those Rose Hall ushers are mean), giving New Yorkers a chance to see their favorite gothic misfit up close and in person, to discover he’s surprisingly normal outside of his wild hair and cartoonish socks, albeit as self-effacing as Ang Lee.
“Those were the worst special effects you’ve ever seen,” said Burton to the Film Society’s Richard Pena, after watching a clip from the climax of “Beetlejuice” with genuine embarrassment. When asked about his career as an animator for Disney in the mid-1980s, he said “I was a terrible animator… I learned how to fall asleep at my desk with a pencil in my hand.”
The real attraction of the night was a 15-minute sneak preview of scenes from Burton’s upcoming adaptation of Stephen Sondheim‘s beloved musical “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” about a murderous barber and the woman who loves him and bakes his victims into meat pies. The early production stills had been more than promising, and Burton’s grotesque Victorian sensibilities certainly seemed perfect for the project, and as I seemed to be the only person in the audience mostly unfamiliar with the source material, there was an air of excited anticipation as the three scenes began.
While it’s always hard to tell how an entire finished film will feel based on its clips, it looks fantastic, so artistically drab that it’s almost black and white with their bleached faces and flyaway hair — the characters look like kabuki troll-dolls. For the three scenes on display (described by Burton as “Sweeney comes home, Sweeney gets pissed, and Sweeney gets down to business”), the pacing and tone were spot-on, full of promising contrasts. The music and story are bombastic, while Helena Bonham Carter displays a touching vulnerability, and Depp puts the ’emo’ in ‘demon barber.’ The film will be released on December 21.