The Young and the Damned
With some movies, you have to be careful not to give away the plot. With Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, the big question is whether you should give away the metaphor. As a frankly autobiographical drama about a New York divorce--and a peculiar one at that, since so much of the ill will arises from the couple's literary careers--the movie has relatively few narrative surprises to spring on Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the teenager who is Baumbach's stand-in. The suspense is limited to one question: When will you find out what the title means?
I might as well tell you. In the first place, the revelation won't spoil your pleasure, and in the second, Baumbach has used this metaphor before, in his screenplay for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (for which the present movie amounts to a decoding). To a child, quarreling parents can seem like monsters of the deep, locked in a deadly struggle.
That Walt, already in high school, still sees his father as some kind of leviathan becomes obvious at the beginning of The Squid and the Whale. He worships bushy-bearded, tweedy Bernard (Jeff Daniels), whose confidence in his ability to rank all other writers implicitly puts him at the top of the list. Bernard lords it over Walt (who submits willingly) and the would-be writers in his college class, meanwhile concealing the fact that he's down to receiving two-line rejections for his latest novel. But his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), knows exactly where he ranks and won't let him lord it over her any longer. Her average expression these days has her lips tucked partway back into her mouth, to help her keep down the rage. (It comes out anyway, when she won't accept Bernard's "notes" on her increasingly successful writing.) As for Bernard, he alternates between issuing pronouncements (which are all the more authoritative for being made in a low voice) and exploding into foul-mouthed vituperation.
Bernard likes to think of himself as "elegant." By the end of the movie, Walt will have a different view of him, and of the mother he has so far despised.
Since this is a movie that focuses on two adolescent males--the other is Walt's little brother Frank (Owen Kline)--the upheavals of divorce naturally get mixed up with the upheavals of young groins in heat. So the boys devote a significant amount of screen time to the question of what to do with the fluid once it's been coaxed out, just as they're always trying to figure out where to put their emotions as they shuttle between Bernard's new home and Joan's. With the parents (Bernard especially) having long seemed to be made of words, it's distressing for Walt and Frank to discover that bodies are involved, too, bodies that evidently have demands as pressing as a teenager's.
The Squid and the Whale is about as low-budget a picture as can be put into release these days. Shot on location in Brooklyn, it makes do with a handful of sets and the inside of Bernard's car, and with a cast that's hardly bigger than the nuclear family. (The main augmentations are William Baldwin and Anna Paquin as the new parental love objects, and Halley Feiffer as a classmate who would be Walt's girlfriend if he didn't think himself too grand.) Somehow, the smallness seems appropriate, given Walt's need to shrink his parents to human scale.
Only two aspects of the movie are big: Jeff Daniels's brilliant performance as Bernard (which is expertly judged to make the character a monster, if not one of the deep) and Noah Baumbach's towering pitilessness. He's as hard on Walt as on Bernard; and although he eventually softens his portrait of Joan, he does it only to bring her into the same cold light as the rest of the family.
If he hadn't wanted the metaphor, Baumbach could have called this one Cruel Story of Youth.
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Over the past decade, South Korean cinema has become a favorite on the art-house and festival circuit, celebrated for being brusque, violent, satiric, political and extravagantly good-looking. You may discover all these qualities, except for the last, in the nastily efficient drama The President's Last Bang.
Written and directed by Im Sangsoo, based on the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee, the film unfolds as twenty-four hours of whore-mongering, infighting, officially dispensed brutality, covert plotting and finally (for a long, nocturnal stretch) utter chaos. Some of this is hilarious, in an awful way. Baik Yoonshik (Save the Green Planet) stars as the smooth and canny Kim, director of the Korean CIA, whose motives for the assassination (in Im's version) are a mixture of rancor at the belittling of his agency, disgust at Park's dictatorship and despair at his own failing health. Han Sukgyu provides wise-guy, gum-cracking glamor as Kim's chief enforcer.