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The pedant and the paragon: (l-r) Daniels and Linney in The Squid and the Whale.

Thermonuclear Family
By Laura Leon

The Squid and the Whale

Directed by Noah Baumbach

While it’s hard to find a single completely appealing character in Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical tale of family disunion, The Squid and the Whale, you’d be hard put to think of any who are more memorable in this particularly bad year for meaty films. Dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a once-promising novelist now relegated to college writing instructor; he’s a pompous windbag so in love with the sound of his own voice, and the pronouncements ruminating in the ivory tower that serves as his head, that he’d be a clear and present danger to any asthmatic within shouting distance. Mom Joan (Laura Linney) is a newly published writer, and a seemingly grounded mother to sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Her unfailing ability to blurt out unseemly truths, however, mostly about her sexual life outside matrimony, have an upsetting affect on the entire family. The dismantling of Bernard and Joan’s marriage, and its subsequent effect on their children, is the crux of The Squid and the Whale.

“Oh,” you’re groaning, “not another coming-of-age story in which divorce and sexuality play major roles.” To be sure, that was my initial reaction as well, since it seems that every would-be auteur mines this now-barren land for Sundance fodder. And yet, somehow, Baumbach gives us something more than what we’ve grown accustomed to. Acutely sensitive to the conversations and observations that color children’s perceptions as they grow up, particularly in a household fraught with tension, the movie has that rare ability to make us feel like voyeurs. Indeed, much of what we see and hear is acutely unsettling.

This is particularly true of how the oldest son, Owen, doggedly repeats anything he hears from his father, be it observations about Kafka, Fitzgerald, teachers, sex, or Joan’s lifestyle. Frank, on the other hand, holds allegiance with his mother, not just because he’s younger, but because even at 12, he seems to sense what Owen cannot grasp: Bernard is a domineering ass. An early scene in which the family pairs off, Bernard and Owen versus Joan and Frank, on the tennis court speaks volumes about the underlying tensions percolating through this family.

Baumbach, who is writer and director, gets amazing performances out of his entire crew. Daniels hasn’t had anything this meaty, this complex, in I don’t know how long, and he clearly relishes sinking his teeth into something that doesn’t require him to wink at the audience just to let us know that, at heart, he’s really a nice guy. Linney is superb in a role that, at first blush, looks pretty simple, but which is actually just as troubling and complex as that of Bernard. But it’s the younger stars, Eisenberg and Kline, who give The Squid and the Whale its core resonance. Alternatively wounded and confident, confused and outraged, they navigate their way around deep and raw emotions in such a way that they seem, well, real, like kids next door or even in your own family. What The Squid and the Whale may lack in narrative—it’s basically the chronicle of the school year that Mom and Dad divorced—it more than makes up for in the depth, soul and even humor of its depiction of the way we react when the idols we’ve relied on show their feet of clay.

Way too cool: (l-r) Okonedo and Theron in Aeon Flux.

Sculpted Silliness

Aeon Flux

Directed by Karyn Kusama

Karyn Kusama, the director of the live-action version of Aeon Flux, made a name for herself in 2000 with the gritty boxing drama Girlfight. Though the big-screen Aeon Flux has plenty of bone-crunching girl fights, the choreography is a letdown, especially in a movie so heavily indebted to The Matrix. Based on Peter Chung’s animated MTV sci-fi series, this Aeon Flux is a mildly boring romp completely lacking the satirical experimentalism of Chung’s shorts. Aside from The Matrix franchise, the other dominant force at play in the year 2415 is, apparently, Charlie’s Angels: Without the benefit of virtual Zen, Aeon (Charlize Theron) and her futuristic cohorts fly (and twirl and somersault) through the air with laughable ease.

Operating in the hermetic city-state of Bregna—all that’s left of civilization after a mysterious “industrial disease” wipes out most of the planet—Aeon is a ruthless assassin who dresses in cut-away black body suits. The film’s wardrobe, along with the rest of the art design, is solidly ho-hum, a predictable reinvention of 1960s pop modernism with the usual nods to Andy and Rudy, along with some vaguely Asian landscapes to vary the concrete monoliths of the city. The lameness of the production is undoubtedly most disappointing to fans of Chung’s body-sculptural artistry. It does, however, expose quite a bit of Theron, who plays to the camera as if her only mission was to make up for lost glamour shots after Monster. Aeon’s severely super-vixen appearance gives her an edge against all the other super-vixen assassins, including her protégé and rival, Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo, buffed into utter boringness).

Aeon and Sithandra are part of a rebel force dedicated to overthrowing Chairman Goodchild (Martin Csokas) and his regime of technocrats. Aside from killing Aeon’s sister, the Goodchild regime is guilty of the usual totalitarian-utopia crimes, such as secret social engineering. The clue to this governmental conspiracy is that everyone, especially Aeon, speaks in a fatigued monotone, as if they were worn out. The ennui of the characters is plenty wearying for the audience, too. Among the cast members who must’ve utilized their considerable talents simply to keep a straight face while reciting their robotic dialogue are Frances McDormand as the Handler, the ratty-haired rebel leader, and Pete Postlethwaite as the Keeper, the wizened old guardian of the regime’s archives. And one can only assume that Chung’s gimmickry with weaponry must’ve looked lot more exciting in cartoon format than it does in live, ludicrous action.

Even so, Aeon Flux is far from the worst of this year’s dismal batch of sci-fi flicks, and toward its bullet-riddled end, it evolves into a rather sweet romance that makes the most of Csokas’ understated appeal. For all its cutting-edge aspirations, Aeon Flux is most enjoyable when relying on old- fashioned tropes such as undying love and blind loyalty.

—Ann Morrow

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