DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Squid And The Whale

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  1. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    The Squid And The Whale

    US Theatrical Release: January 2005 (Sundance), October 5, 2005 (Sony Pictures)
    US DVD Release: March 21, 2006
    Running Time: 1:21:08 (13 chapter stops)
    Rating: R (For Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Dialogue and Language) (Note that there is sexual content involving children, but not children with adults)
    Video: 1.85:1 anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
    Audio: English DD5.1, French DD2.0 (Extra Features: English DD2.0)
    Subtitles: English, French (Extra Features: none)
    TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
    Menus: Some background animation.
    Packaging: Standard keepcase; fold-out insert features reviews from the LA Times and The New Yorker, plus some cover images from other Sony Pictures titles.
    MSRP: $26.96

    THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 4/5

    Life is filled with difficult changes, none more disruptive than the transition from childhood to adulthood. Juggling the physical, emotional and intellectual developments of adolescence is an enormous challenge. An understanding and supportive family is invaluable to help one through this time, but what happens when parents are going through catastrophic changes of their own?

    16-year-old (give or take) Walt Berkman (Jessie Eisenberg) has reached the point at which he considers himself to be a young adult, desperate to speak and act like a grownup. His brother Frank (Owen Kline), who is about 12, is in the raging throes of puberty. Both of them have a long way to go in the confidence department – they are exploring their own behavior like a pair of lab rats learning to navigate a maze. Unfortunately for the boys, however, their parents are not going to be able to offer much guidance, for they are about to be overcome by the chaos of a divorce.

    Not long into The Squid And The Whale, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) sit their sons down to inform them that they’ve decided to separate. They think they’ve got the bases covered, having agreed to a schedule of joint custody, but the boys immediately wonder about the fate of their cat, which hasn’t been discussed at all – not a good omen. Although Bernard and Joan have the best of intentions, their plans don’t stand a chance against the emotional upheaval they’re about to experience.

    It’s instantly clear where the boys stand – Walt with his dad and Frank with his mom. Each models himself, consciously or not, on one parent, and with the divorce, this leads to open antagonism of the other. That works both ways, as each parent seems to pay far more attention to the closer child. Walt longs for recognition and respect, whether deserved or not, plagiarizing a famous song and regurgitating his father’s pompous academic pronouncements (dismissing works of great authors as “minor;” referring to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as “Kafkaesque”). Frank looks up to his mother’s new love interest Ivan (William Baldwin) (who also teaches Frank in a literal sense as his tennis instructor) and his less-than-intellectual ways. Frank also acts out sexually, perhaps as some sort of twisted imitation of his mother’s carnal adventures.

    Bernard and Joan’s relationship quickly devolves into a contest for the affections of the children and for a moral high ground that doesn’t really exist. It’s clear to an objective observer that neither can avoid responsibility for the divorce – Bernard’s whole personality is colored by bitterness at his failure to replicate his past literary success as his wife meets with her own, while Joan’s repeated philandering only serves to further distance her from her husband and her children. Their emotional progression mirrors their sons’ in reverse as they begin to act like bickering children, both taking younger lovers and fighting tooth-and-nail over petty issues like who owns which old books. The situation brings out the self-absorption in both of them, which confuses and hurts the boys.

    The truth in these characters presents quite a challenge, and the cast is up for it. These are the kinds of roles that serious actors dream about, requiring a solid grounding in reality as well as layers of both positive and negative attributes. Young newcomer Owen Kline really loses himself in Frank, holding his own with the other leads, indie veterans all. Bernard and Joan are each competitive in their own ways, he overtly and aggressively, she more passively. Walt struggles to do and say the right thing, but often realizes just a moment too late that his mouth or his body was one step ahead of his brain.

    A lot of the discussion of The Squid And The Whale revolves around its relationship to the real-life experiences of writer-director Noah Baumbach and on whether it’s a drama or a comedy. Baumbach has made it clear that by heavily fictionalizing the events of the film, he has been able to remain true to the feelings that he intended to convey – a more accurate replication of his own history would not have worked as well for an outside audience. The honest emotions of the film also render it immune to a strict genre classification. Every character is well-intentioned but flawed; as in real life, pathos and humor flow in and out of situations and conversations without any structured plan.

    Much of the film feels like a series of vignettes that don’t follow a traditional story structure. As with many other recent independent films (like Junebug), it concerns itself more with observation than with plot. However, the storyline does come at least somewhat into focus towards the end, culminating in something of a cathartic moment. Of course, not every thread is tied up neatly, or even most of them, but such is life, and such is the charm of The Squid And The Whale.


    THE WAY I SEE IT: 2.5/5

    The Super 16mm stock gives the film a grainy, almost documentary-like feel. Colors are rich and detail is decent. There are touches of compression artifacts throughout, and some edge enhancement (but not of the glowing fringe variety).


    THE WAY I HEAR IT: 3/5

    The audio gets the job done without being especially exciting. As can be expected, the soundtrack consists mainly of center-channel dialogue with everyday Foley effects and mellow background music. Things are clear enough but not terribly dynamic.


    THE SWAG: 2.5/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

    Reviews

    The package insert includes extensive reviews of the film by Kenneth Turan of the LA Times and David Denby of The New Yorker.

    Commentary With Writer/ Director Noah Baumbach (51:46)

    The “commentary” is actually a separate feature, with Baumbach talking over production stills instead of the film itself. Although it’s not scene-specific at all, it does cover a lot of interesting material, and of course there’s no dead space. It’s divided into 35 short chapters by subject, and will play to the end from whichever chapter is selected. Bizarrely, the fast-forward and rewind buttons are disabled while this feature is playing, although the chapter skip buttons do work.

    A Conversation With Noah Baumbach and Phillip Lopate (37:33)

    Lopate, a writer, interviews Baumbach at the 2005 New York Film Festival. Some of the topics duplicate information from the commentary, but there’s enough here to be worth watching.

    Behind The Squid And The Whale (9:56)

    A solid if unspectacular collection of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

    Trailers

    When the disc is first inserted, the trailers for The Tenants and London play automatically. They may be skipped.
    • Capote (2:10) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
    • The Dying Gaul (2:20) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2:21) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 non-anamorphic)
    • Junebug (1:59) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • London (2:02) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • Pretty Persuasion (2:14) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
    • Saint Ralph (2:08) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • The Exorcism Of Emily Rose (2:30) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • The Tenants (2:10) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • Thumbsucker (2:16) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
    • Where The Truth Lies (2:02) (DD2.0; 2.35:1 anamorphic)

    SUMMING IT ALL UP

    The Way I Feel About It: 4/5
    The Way I See It: 2.5/5
    The Way I Hear It: 3/5
    The Swag: 2.5/5


    The Squid And The Whale is an honest look at a situation that too many families go through, with a highly intelligent script that earned its Oscar nomination. It can be depressing at times, but it features enough humor to keep from getting too dark. It’s not exactly a work of escapist entertainment, though – in fact, it’s essentially the opposite. The A/V quality of the disc is decent, especially considering the film’s miniscule budget, and a nice selection of special features round out a solid package.
     
  2. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    The cover of my disc case is gray, not blue like the graphic linked at the top of the review -- what colors are people seeing on store shelves?
     
  3. DaViD Boulet

    DaViD Boulet Lead Actor

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    Looking forward to seeing this. Thanks for the review!
     
  4. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Glad you enjoyed it, DaVid! Praise from you is high praise indeed. [​IMG]
     
  5. Brett_M

    Brett_M Screenwriter

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    Nice review.

    Watched it today. Humorous and sad at the same time. One of the best scripts I've heard this year. Great performances by all. It's definitely worth a look.
     
  6. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Thanks, Brett! The Academy was right on in nominating this script for an Oscar.
     
  7. Jon Martin

    Jon Martin Cinematographer

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    Noah Baumbach is one of my favorite filmmakers, yet I have to say in all honesty, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is my least favorite film of his. And I would even include his film HIGHBALL, which he took his name off of. Not that SQUID is a bad film, in any way. It is very good. It is just that I love his other ones even more.

    So, if you liked this, and haven't seen his other films, I'd highly recommend them. Although, KICKING AND SCREAMING isn't on DVD yet (Criterion will be putting it out soon though.)
     
  8. Rich Malloy

    Rich Malloy Producer

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    This is the first and only Noah Baumbach film I've so far seen. I'm thrilled to hear that Criterion's releasing "Kicking and Screaming", but I'm surprised by your negative reaction to "Squid", Jon. If Baumbach's other films are better than this one, then I am in for a some serious cinematic treats when I get to see the rest!

    I've always liked Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, but I've never before seen them shine as they do here. And the kid who plays Frank (the younger brother)... wow! Likewise the actress who plays Walt's girlfriend (I forget her name, but I suspect I'll be hearing it again). Obviously, the script is very strong, but I was really bowled over by the editing and pace of the film. There's a certain inexorable rhythm to it, a driving pulse that carries one through to the end practically without drawing a breath... and this strikes me as quite difficult for a film that's dialog driven and lacking some sort of narrative crutch (for example, a road picture like "Paris, Texas").

    I'm glad you mentioned "Junebug" in your review, Aaron. That was the only other American film of this sort that I really liked this past year. Films dealing with familial relations seem to be constructed primarily from sentimentalized crap and goofy overbroad characterizations ("The Family Stone" comes to mind), so it's refreshing to say the least to get two wonderful little gems like these.
     
  9. Jon Martin

    Jon Martin Cinematographer

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    I didn't mean to be negative. I did like the film. It is just that, like I said, I liked the other ones more.

    If I was watching this as a standard movie, I may have liked it more. But my expectations were set higher, and it didn't quite meet them.

    I'll give it another shot in the future though.
     
  10. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    I too have yet to see Baumbach's other films. I'll check 'em out when I get the chance.

    Laura Linney is turning into a real indie queen -- her fans should also check out P.S. (my review of it can be found in the Reviews Archive folder).
     
  11. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Absolutely! It was nice to see these two indies remembered at Oscar time (Junebug's Amy Adams was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, although she didn't win either).
     

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