Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Squid and the WhaleThe Squid and the Whale is a film that's very hard to pin down, much like writer/director Noah Baumbach's previous big screen outing, The Life Aquatic, which I preferred, and which polarised opinions much more than this latest offering which the critics universally seem to love.

The film essentially documents the story of a family break-up, which explores the differences between the sexes, the generations, art and commerce, and the lifestyles of the bohemian and the bourgoisie in an intelligent and witty fashion. Very much an 'art house' film, in the sense that it feels more like a witty play than a movie and features camerawork and cinematography that shout 'home movie' or 'TV documentary' at you, stars Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are roped in to help move this indie pic to the mainstream. Linney and Daniels are both brilliant, but it's actually the two unknown child actors who steal the show, whether in tems of acting chops or just being able to deliver some of the best lines Baumbach had to offer I'm not quite sure. It's hard to see how the casting could have been any better, with each cast member playing their role to perfection.

The film essentially details the war of words and silly little mean-spirited actions that break out when a couple decide to split up. The behaviour of the parents, and of the children who change their allegiances through the movie, alternate between being savage one minute but civilised the next, and it's the way the parents try and use their children to get back at their partners which make for the biggest laughs. Underneath the surface humour though there are important messages about life, wry observations about humanity, and some honest advice about moving on when it's appropriate.

It's a movie that's hard to pin down. While this is very much an intelligent drama, there are so many wonderful, laugh out loud lines sprinkled throughout, it might better be described as an avante-garde comedy: every scene seems to have a witty, if slightly acerbic, observation to make. Basically, then, this is a feast for the brain, if not the eyes, and as such it's not hard to see why the critics loved it so much, when theatrically released a few months ago. For my part, whilst I admire the script, performances and overall feel of the piece (it is different from any other movie that I've seen) something doesn't quite gel with me. Too often, it feels a bit too clever for its own good, the writing feels just a tad TOO showy, and this initial unease was only exacerbated for me by the rather pretentious interviews and audio commentary that are included as extra's on the DVD. I mean it's a good film, but really, is it THAT good? Will I remember it in five years time? Somehow I doubt it, which is why I've ended up giving it a seven out of ten, rather than the eight out of ten most others seem to think it deserves.

It's a very short film, running at just 77 minutes (and that figure includes all the credits), but that succinctness is part of its strength: each scene says what it has to and then quickly moves on to the next - there's no padding here.

Unfortunately the extra's are also a bit on the short side too, over-promoted and exaggerated on the sleeve. The Audio Commentaries turn out to be a single audio essay by the writer/director that is not delivered against the film, but against a static screen slowly switching between publicity photos. There is a fairly long interview with Baumbach from another writer, Philip Lopate, but it was so self-congratulatory and over-the-top in terms of its own navel gazing I gave up on it 35 minutes in. The 'Behind the Scenes' featurette betrays the low budget and restricted shooting time available, consisting for the most part of a snatched interview with Linney and Daniels on a set of concrete steps between takes.

There's some confusion over how easy this DVD is to locate because licensing problems, presumably to do with the use of Pink Floyd's "Heh you" track mean that some stores are advising that the title has been withdrawn before release, while others seem to be selling pre-allocated stock. So if you think it sounds like your kind of movie then you probably need to move quickly.

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