28 January 2008

There Will Be Atonement for Old Men

Award season is kind of awkward this year. There are so many good movies - more so than usual; I am actually split about who should win, not just who should not win. With There Will Be Blood, the breath-taking masterpiece from P.T. Anderson, and the supremely excellent No Country for Old Men, it's hard to say who should win what, especially since they are contending for six of the same categories. Not only does the appearance of these two excellent movies make me care more, but the threat of there not being an Oscars ceremony due to the Writer's Strike makes it even more tense- of course, the threat of taking something away makes you want that thing more, but on top of that there are so many good movies you want to see honored/snubbed.

The other movie, besides those mentioned, that seems to occupy many nominations this year is Atonement. I had no primary interest in seeing this movie, at first writing it off as another lame English romance movie by the director of Pride & Prejudice (whoever that is), but after seeing that is won the Golden Globe for Best Picture and that it was nominated for 7 academy awards I decided that I should probably see it.

The movie starts off centered on Briony, the younger sister of Cecilia, Keira Knightley's character. Right off the bat, with Dario Marienelli's fantastic musical score blending together the echoed punch of typewriter's keys, we are given lush images of a upperclass home in England: the dark woods of the domestic stairway, the sterile white lace of Briony and her room, the bright sunshine and emerald greens of the grass and gardens out the window. The camera moves athletically through the house, following Briony's heels as she tries to find someone to share in her excitement of finishing her first play. The first few scenes are engaging and beautiful, almost boastfully so.

I say boastfully because the film technique and the construction is so terrifically well-crafted and nice to look at that as I am watching it, I begin to distance myself from the film. It's almost as if I am watching a virtuoso performance - noticing how well the light has been placed, how lovely the colors are arranged, how well the figures are composed within the frame - that I am not sucked into the world of the film as immediately. This distancing and isolation is greatened by the unconventional editing within the narrative. There are several repeating scenes, close-ups, rewinds, and other techniques which evoke a tip of the hat to avant-garde cinema that I can't help but notice it. I am reminded that someone - or many people, actually - has constructed what I am watching, I am reminded that I am watching something that has been created. This is the opposite effect of, say, There Will Be Blood or any other movie which you are completely drawn into to the point in which you forget you are watching a movie, you are just so focused on these characters and their world.

This distance did not last throughout the whole movie for me, mostly in the beginning. There were times when I was totally engaged and forgot I was watching a movie, but every now and then a dream sequence or an tricky shot would bring me back. I don't know if this is solely the result of taking film classes these past two semesters, but I highly doubt it. The effect of the distancing I felt from the movie at times was mixed. On one hand I could appreciate the beauty and construction of it from afar, as a painting or purely visual medium, but on the other hand, I couldn't become as attached to the characters. With this said, the ending did not affect me in ways that it has others - no teary-eyed sentiments (although Vanessa Redgrave's monologue with the intense close-up did give my heartstrings a pull or two).

The only criticism I would make of the film is that it did feel a bit overstated at some points. The music would crescendo and the camera would snake, someone's eyes would be in close up (often watery). This happened a lot, and sometimes I just wanted the camera to sit still and let the characters walk across the frame with only ambient sounds or conversation, and every now and then it did. Sometimes it felt like the movie was trying to say something grand with grand gestures, when quieter approaches could have been just as or even more effective. The film's "loudness," however, did not really take too much away from it, especially since I felt like this was a chance for director Joe Wright, only previously known for doing (the 943rd) Pride & Prejudice adaptation, to flex his filmmaking muscles a bit.

Overall, I thought the film was very good and certainly a pleasant surprise. Should it get Best Picture? No. But then again, I hope it does get something. Maybe Best Art Direction, since it was very, very beautiful. And Best Original Score. Hmm... Sure I like it now, but if it beats out There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men in anything, I may have less nice things to say about it. Ha. In any case, go see it. More on Oscar predictions later.

22 January 2008

R.I.P. Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

Heath Ledger died today. The news was kind of sudden and random. I was not a huge fan, but I certainly admired Ledger and thought he was a very good actor. I started to take him seriously after Brokeback Mountain, which I thought he was great in. He also did a great job in I'm Not There and I was looking forward to seeing him in the Dark Knight Returns. He has a great magnetism to him and certainly an inherent charisma. It's a shame since he was in his prime and I felt like he had great roles ahead of him. In any case, thanks for everything.

The Cowboy, the Samurai, and the Noir Detective

I have always been interested in the samurai figure/myth/legend, as I mentioned before, particularly those portrayed in cinema. I have never, though, thought anything about the cowboy or the Western. I grew up in a generation already inherited with an inherent cynicism towards the Western - the racism against indians, the false sense of manliness, the John Wayne drawl, etc. - so much so that I never had any passing interest in seeing them. As my interest in movies grew and I was assigned to watch a couple of John Ford Westerns for class (Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine), I was blown away by what I saw. First, I suppose I saw why Kurosawa named Ford as one of his favorite directors and influencers. Second, the storytelling, mise-en-scene, and of the movie were so intriguing, not to mention the psychological stuff you could dig out of it. Third, I realized that the lonesome cowboy figure (Ringo, Ethan, Wyatt, the Man With No Name, et. al) is really no different from the ronin samurai such as Sanjuro in the Yojimbo and Sanjuro movies (this comparison is more obvious since Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo) or any other disillusioned samurai figure who has left his emperor after a defeat or imperial war.


The comparison of the cowboy and the samurai has been written about before. It is no secret that these two genres - the Western and the jidaigeki (samurai film) - have borrowed from each other throughout cinematic history, but it is an insight that is fresh and exciting to me. But the comparisons don't stop there. There is also the noir genre and the noir protagonist. Usually a P.I., but not always, the noir protagonist is a loneman who has given up on a lot in life, disillusioned and most often incredibly cynical (despite a hidden soft center). The hired gun, the hired sword, the hired eye. These characters are all put into a situation where they are victims of a system which has failed them. It could be a Confederate soldier such as Ethan in The Searchers, a masterless samurai such as Tatsuya Nakadai's character in Harakiri or Takashi Shimura's in Seven Samurai, or an ex-cop who's seen too much such as Gittes in Chinatown.

I don't have too much to say about it now, more just throwing out some stuff I've been interested in. If I were ever to write a thesis on a topic, I think this comparison of genres and characters would be it.

16 January 2008

Speechless

The WGA strike has produced several videos entitled Speechless, featuring different actors in short films. Here are a few of my favorites, though there are plenty of great ones to browse on YouTube:


Jason and Justine Bateman




Woody Allen


Harvey Keitel

10 January 2008

Top 10 for 2007 (Redux)

1. No Country for Old Men
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

2. There Will Be Blood
dir. P.T. Anderson

3. Zodiac
dir. David Fincher

4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
dir. Julien Schnabel

5. Ratatouille
dir. Brad Bird

6. The Assassination of Jesse James...
dir. by Andrew Dominik

7. The Darjeeling Limited
dir. Wes Anderson

8. Michael Clayton
dir. Tony Gilroy

9. Atonement
dir. Joe Wright

10. I'm Not There
dir. Todd Haynes

05 January 2008

New Year's Resolution

My New Year's Resolution? Hmm.

Watch more Westerns.
















Oh, and maybe gain some weight.

Nah, whatever, I'll just watch movies.

04 January 2008

Juno-kay

Now that big award shows such as the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards are around the corner, a lot of hype about who-deserves-what is being tossed around and critics' opinions on films are becoming more publicized. Even loser bloggers are giving their two cents. Of the hype and the most united opinions that I've noticed, three things stick out: No Country is a top contender for Best Picture (agreed), Daniel Day Lewis's performance in There Will Be Blood is astonishing (agreed), and Juno is a terrific, heartfelt, witty movie with a fantastic screenplay that deserves something (huh?).

Okay. The first preconceptions and assumptions I had about Juno based on previews and such was that it would be a quirky, ignorable movie that would garner some kind of small recognition among a specific demographic - certain people who like Napoleon Dynamite and Judd Apatow and who listen to, uhm, I dunno, Belle and Sebastian or something. A demographic slightly less exclusive (or hip) than the Royal Tenenbaums lovers, but a little more particular than, say, your average Joe who thinks Pirates of the Caribbean is the best thing to ever happen to cinema. (Can you tell that this reviewer has one too many based judgments and assumptions about groups of people based on what they are into?)

Turns out I was way wrong. This movie is being adored through the roof by critics, viewers, old, young, hip, unhip, you-name-it. Naturally, I was intrigued to see what all the huff was about. Turns out my knee-jerk assumptions had some validity.

It's hard to watch a movie, especially for me, knowing that something is overly-praised, since it makes you have high expectations and it triggers that part of your (my) cynical mind to find its flaws before anything else. I tried to bury that as much as possible, allowing myself to have as much of an unbiased mind as possible. Even so, the first 10-20 minutes of Juno were unbearable. It was just filled with so much of that "indie quirk" that I felt like gagging. Oh my, she drinks Sunny D by the gallon. Oh my, she is non-chalant about a possible pregnancy. Oh my, she sure does have a smart mouth. I mean, really.

However, after a while I suppose I became adapted into the Juno universe and suspended my disbelief in the fact that teenagers just don't talk like that off a whim. It was after I did that, or it really happened naturally actually, that I could enjoy the movie. And it was fairly enjoyable. Ellen Page gives a very good performance despite the quaint screenplay and Michael Cera is probably the most lovable guy out there. Even the cross country team, at first a bit annoying, started to become pretty funny and acted as chapter markers.

The only negative quips I've read argued that the movie was way written a way that was "too cool for school" while trying to sneak in undeserved sentimentality. I disagree. I think it's the other way around. The movie itself is a sentimental movie, a movie with heart, with way too many one-liners, wise cracks, and unnatural wittiness. A lot of the lines felt too forced to convince me that Juno could actually exist or that someone would handle the situation the way she did. The core of the film, however, is one saturated in emotional situations: relationships breaking, dealing with pregnancy, issues of parenthood, failure and need for love, etc. It is when these situations are played out without stuffing as many Woody Allen remarks in it as possible that the movie works, which is mostly towards the end as resolutions and big decisions are made. The other negative quip I've heard is that it tries way too hard, and I would agree more with that than the other criticism. However, I don't think that its ambition destroys the film totally, it just takes away from it when it could certainly be better. I think Diablo Cody, as a first-time screenplay writer (awesome first gig), tried to stuff a little too much in and maybe has not developed a sense of control since she may not have known what was going to fly.

So is Juno overrated? Certainly. Is it worth seeing? I would say so. All in all, I would say that it's "okay." It is a nice little movie that could certainly be better, but not completely undeserving of all the praise its been garnering. Some scenes, like the beginning ones, make you want to roll your eyes until they unscrew from their sockets, while other ones, especially with Page and Cera together (or just Cera for that matter) you can't help but smile at.