January 26, 2008

Atonement

An overripe, bombastic melodrama which went out of style 50 years ago, Atonement regurgitates all the best bits of The English Patient and Cold Mountain without the emotional core, subtlety, or originality which made The English Patient worth watching.
The first third of the movie consists of the fateful events of a hot summer day at an English manor in 1935. Fate, bad luck, misunderstandings, and precocious pre-teen imagination are stirred together in a completely implausible stew. The combination is so overcomplicated and unlikely that it's only believeable in real life. Too bad this story is based on a contemporary novel. The end result condemns an innocent man Robbie (James McEvoy) to prison for raping a teenage girl in the bushes. Just that night he had pledged his love to Cecelia (Keira Knightley) during an ill-advised hump on a bookcase.
Robbie and Cecelia are separated by prison, and later, he is drafted out of prison and shipped to France to fight the Nazis. While he strolls through a World War II Cliches Greatest Hits, Cecelia writes love letters from the home front, while her teenage sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), the girl whose unreliable eyewitness account condemned Robbie to prison, tries to scrub the blood from her hands by nursing war vets in a London hospital.
Most of this could have been assembled from existing movies. All of it has been done better before, and the old-fashioned style is embarassing at times. During a tearful farewell at a bus stop, Robbie exclaims "I hope this bus never comes!" Then Cecelia boards the bus, it pulls away, and Robbie chases it down the street until it turns out of sight. I don't care about characters whose feelings are expressed via reheated melodrama cliches from old movies.
I may be the only person who has not liked Atonement: A pile of awards plus a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Rotten Tomatoes lists a 87% freshness rating, placing me in the distinct minority, anyways.
THEATER NOTES: My first visit to Manville, New Jersey, and the Reading Cinemas Manville 12-plex. Big thanks to my sister-in-law Rebecca for taking us to Manville, and putting us up in her BB&B (Becca's Bed and Breakfast)!



January 23, 2008

Best Pictures: Four In A Row

I have now seen all five Best Picture nominees for 2007, including four in a row: Atonement, Michael Clayton, Juno, and There Will Be Blood. We saw No Country For Old Men back in November.

I have seen two Best Picture nominees in a row on nine occasions, but the topper of them all was November 2003, when I saw four Best Picture nominees in a row, albeit from three different years: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mystic River, Master & Commander (both 2003), and West Side Story (1961).

January 22, 2008

Michael Clayton

A high quality, well performed, smartly written legal thriller. Michael Clayton takes a familiar template (Common Man versus Evil Corporation via Lawyers) which we've seen executed to varying degrees of success (Class Action, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action) and adds a new twist. All the intrigue and drama is between the lawyers who are all on the same side of the case: the lawyers at the enormous, agribusiness UNorth (I was thinking Archer Daniels Midland) and the law firm which is defending them against a multi-billion dollar class action. We never see the plaintiffs' lawyers, and we barely see the plaintiffs themselves.
The lead lawyer representing UNorth, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), who has been trusted with UNorth's secrets, who has been trusted with UNorth's very destiny, has gone off the rails. He goes off his meds (literally) and suddenly jeopardizes the future of both UNorth and the firm he works for. What will UNorth's paranoid and manic general counsel (Tilda Swinton) do to preserve her company?
George Clooney is Michael Clayton, a supremely useful "cleaner" who can fix any legal entanglement. Clayton turns into a detective, using his own personal skill set to solve the crime and the cover-ups at the heart of the story, all while being surveilled and opposed on two sides. My wife pointed out the similarities to the movie of The Fugitive, where Dr. Kimble has to solve his wife's murder with his skills as a doctor, while being pursued on two fronts.
In the past, I have noted that George Clooney the actor has some mannerisms which he falls back on as crutches. I noticed in this film that he has grown as an actor- some scenes displayed heretofore unseen depth of character. We can thank his character for this: Far from the fast-talking slick con man of the Ocean's Eleven movies, Michael Clayton the attorney is just a cog in a machine, broke and powerless, at the mercy of his loan shark and his boss. His moment of epiphany, in a pasture with some horses, is a little silly, but Clooney brings his best stuff, and I can see why he's been nominated for Best Actor. Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson are both nominated too: Wilkinson's manic lawyer has some rambling monologues, but I think he gets the nomination because voters pity his character. Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the paranoid, manic, insecure general counsel whose identity is so wrapped up in her work that she loses all perspective.
This is the directing debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Gilroy is best known for adapting the three Bourne movies. For every moment which cleverly presented multiple ideas at once, there were a series of sequences, especially in the last half hour, which held our hands far too much. Gilroy did a great job of overlapping dialog from one scene with images from another: the sequence where Swinton is preparing her speech for the recording of a Electronic Press Kit, combined with the taping itself, takes half the screen time as the two scenes separately, and is twice as powerful. Then in the third act, Gilroy becomes incredibly deliberate and obvious with every character and plot moment, as if a couple old ladies in the preview screenings got puzzled and raised their hands during the Q&A.
Michael Clayton is nominated in six of the top seven Oscar categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actor. I am a little surprised that a "genre" movie, admittedly a very well executed genre movie, has turned into such a big deal. The movie as a great pedigree: Clooney, Wilkinson, Swinton, producer and co-star Sidney Pollack, plus producers Anthony Minghella and Steven Soderbergh, have all been nominated or won Oscars before. Composer James Newton Howard is nominated for Best Score for the fifth time (one of those previous four was for The Fugitive).
THEATER NOTES: Last night, sitting in the theater while waiting for Juno to begin, we watched two pairs sixty-something friends spontaneously run into each other in the theater, as if they go to the movies on weeknights all the time. I whispered to my wife "that's going to be us someday", meaning "we'll spend our retirement going to movies on weeknights and meeting our fellow retirees". She replied "we already are them!" Good point, 'cause guess what: On our way out of the 6:30 screening of Michael Clayton, we ran into our friends Tom and Amy in the lobby. They were on their way in, to see the 8:45 show of the same movie.




January 21, 2008

Juno

I am surprised that Juno, a modest, pleasant, heartfelt and original, but only mildly funny comedy, has turned into such a "big deal". The invaluable "word of mouth" has helped Fox Searchlight boost Juno's screen count and box office to the point where it reached #2 at the national box office earlier this month. Meanwhile, director Jason Reitman has accomplished something his directing father Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters) has never done: Jason's up for the Best Director Oscar, all for not screwing up a fine screenplay and a collection of delightful and nuanced performances.
Ellen Page (who turns 21 next month) is nuanced and charming as Juno, the wisecracking and precocious sixteen year old who gets pregnant after she and her friend Bleeker get bored one evening and fool around to end the tedium. Michael Cera improves his shy and sweet mumbling character we've seen in Superbad and on Arrested Development. Both the casting director and the screenplay deserve credit for J.K. Simmons as Juno's dad. His brusque, no bull attitude helps make the Juno character more convincing. The relationship between Juno and her stepmother (Allison Janney) is also well drawn.
The movie did not begin well: the first ten minutes was almost unbearably clever and hip. The emo-folky, badly sung pop songs, the hand-animated title sequence, the too-clever-by-half dialogue, were all grating and precious. The screenplay is filled with overly clever teenage hipster slang, but the frequency thankfully dials back after the first ten minutes.
Besides the original songs and score, the movie is filled with the kind of underappreciated rock music which Wes Anderson has already made tedious. Here's a message to feature film directors like Jason Reitman: You already have the coolest job in the world. You don't have to prove how hip you are by putting The Kinks and Cat Power in your movie.
THEATER NOTES: This was my first-ever visit to the Lexington Flick in downtown Lexington, MA. I think I just set a personal record for "Closest Parking Spot to the Theater" award-- I parked right out front, maybe three spaces from the marquee. The theater itself has been split into two screens- the balcony is its own screen, and the main house (where we saw Juno) is the #1 screen. A new projection booth was built where the last few rows of the main seating used to be. The theater is, as my wife put it, "well preserved". The theater smelled a little funky, the seats were a bit saggy, and the projection was below average, but for a modest indie comedy, it was all OK. I may go there again strictly for convenience's sake!


January 19, 2008

1980s Party Playlist

January 2008: My wife and I threw a birthday party for me at the local Elks lodge. We dragged my turntable, speakers, and an old receiver borrowed from my Dad from the back of my little Honda, we hung up some of my vintage 1980s T-shirts on the wall, and dressed up like the way we thought was cool in 1986 (see right).
Anticipation is half the fun, so I worked out a playlist in advance. I didn't have a mixer, so the transitions were all going to stink, but I wanted to be prepared. Besides bringing almost all of the 60 songs on vinyl, I also burned CD-Rs of the playlist and borrowed my wife's laptop + iTunes to play music too. I don't remember exactly how closely we stuck to the playlist, so I've edited the list below to reflect as many of the changes as I can recall.
Fifteen songs per hour is average, but many of these are extended remixes from 12-inch singles, so these 60 songs are closer to 5 hours of music.
I have learned the hard way not to start off too big. At the beginning of a party, no one's dancing yet anyway. The first half hour at least should be mood-setting, almost background music.
  1. Is It Love • Mr. Mister: Not many people give a crap about Mr. Mister, and I must be the only person on Earth who still remembers this song. I got the LP from the RCA Record & Tape Club. That's how old school I am.
  2. You Might Think • The Cars
  3. Sanctify Yourself • Simple Minds
  4. Raspberry Beret • Prince & The Revolution: Midtempo and not really danceable, but everyone loves Prince.
  5. Sussudio • Phil Collins
  6. Sledgehammer (extended dance remix) • Peter Gabriel: Petey was my first concert (the tour for this album in 1987) and I bought all the 12" singles for the So LP.
  7. We Close Our Eyes (club mix) • Go West: File next to Mr Mister under "Bands Only I Remember Anymore"
  8. Say Say Say • Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson
  9. Like a Virgin (extended dance remix) • Madonna: There's lots of Madonna on this playlist. She never fails!
  10. Be Near Me (munich mix) • ABC
  11. Too Shy • Kajagoogoo
  12. Dancing In The Dark (blaster mix) • Bruce Springsteen released three 12 inch singles from the album Born In The U.S.A. comprised of disco-fied remixes by dance producer Arthur Baker. This is the best of the bunch.
  13. Freeway of Love (Extended Remix) • Aretha Franklin
  14. Two Hearts (club mix) • I was totally surprised to find a 12 inch single of U2 remixes from so early in their career. I own several remixes of songs from Rattle & Hum and Achtung Baby, but finding this vinyl was a total surprise. The remix is tasteful, and seems to preserve Larry Mullen's original drum track.
  15. Love Bites • Def Leppard
Here's the "Late 80s English Alternative" section:
  1. Why Can't I Be You? • The Cure
  2. Kiss Me On The Bus • The Replacements
  3. This Charming Man • The Smiths
  4. Just Can't Get Enough • Depeche Mode
  5. Bizarre Love Triangle • New Order
  6. New Sensation (nicks mix) • INXS
  7. I Cant Wait (dutch mix) • Nu Shooz
  8. I'll Tumble 4 Ya (12" remix) • Culture Club
  9. Borderline (new mix) • Madonna
  10. Drive • The Cars: A note on ballads. Only play 1 at a time, and space them out, every 20 or 30 minutes max.
  11. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go • Wham!
Here's the "Late 80s Novelty Hip Hop" section:
  1. Hey Ladies • Beastie Boys
  2. Bust a Move • Young MC
  3. Me Myself And I • De La Soul
  4. Wild Wild Life (extended mix) • Talking Heads
  5. Escapade • Janet Jackson
  6. Big Time • Peter Gabriel
  7. Something About You • Level 42
  8. Poison Arrow (remix) • ABC
  9. Angel (extended dance remix) • Madonna
  10. Hello • Lionel Richie
  11. Rio • Duran Duran
  12. Tenderness • General Public: Nobody knows this band, but everyone loves the song.
  13. Steppin' Out • Joe Jackson
  14. True • Spandau Ballet
  15. Don't You Want Me • The Human League
  16. The Safety Dance • Men Without Hats: People LOVE dancing to this song. Any dance song which is also a novelty hit song works great.
  17. I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) • Whitney Houston
  18. Billie Jean • Michael Jackson
  19. Heaven • Bryan Adams
  20. I Feel For You • Chaka Khan
  21. Material Girl (extended dance remix) • Madonna
  22. Things Can Only Get Better • Howard Jones
  23. Take On Me • A-Ha
  24. That's Why They Call It the Blues • Elton John
  25. Come On Eileen • Dexy's Midnight Runners: Another must-have.
  26. Angel • Aerosmith
  27. Hungry Like The Wolf • Duran Duran
  28. Girls Just Want To Have Fun • Cyndi Lauper
  29. When I Think Of You • Janet Jackson
  30. Relax • Frankie Goes To Hollywood
  31. Dancing With Myself • Billy Idol: People literally rushed to the dance floor like someone threw hundred-dollar bills everywhere.
  32. Let's Go Crazy • Prince & The Revolution: The ideal last-song capper.
What did I take away from hosting my first live dance party?
  • People like to dance to novelty hits from their youth.
  • People like to dance to songs they know already. I tried playing some very danceable Style Council ("My Ever-Changing Moods"), and nobody danced. "But this song shows how cool I am!" I thought to myself. On the flip side (not literally), I didn't want to play "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" because it is hopelessly uncool. My wife forced me to play it AND SHE WAS RIGHT. The whole crowd danced their asses off.
  • Don't blow your wad right away. I hosted a dance party once where the first five songs were super hot and danceable, yet everyone was still saying "hi" and settling in, so no one danced.
  • I didn't think anyone would dance to "Dancing With Myself", but it really worked.
  • If you want to rock the "jacket with the sleeves pushed up" look (see my photo, top), you have to roll them up BEFORE you put the jacket on.

January 6, 2008

There Will Be Blood

A scathing indictment of greed in general, and capitalism and religion in particular, There Will Be Blood tells its story with a chapter in history which I'd not seen onscreen before: hunting for oil in America, circa 1900.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, pure capitalism and greed embodied as a beast in man's clothing. His total immersion in the business of riches has left him with nothing but contempt for all people, specifically their weakness and failures. He wears clothes and speaks English, but he lives off the earth like a scavenger. He digs in the ground, first hacking away in a bottomless mine, picking for silver, then using his bare hands to sniff out oil like a bear sniffing for blood. He sleeps on the ground; he is usually filthy and grimy, and of course, oily- even when he is relatively clean and well-dressed, he is still grimy with the dirt and oil of his life.
While he digs in the earth for his survival like a scavenger, he is more of a predator amongst landowners, oil company competition, and those who threaten him. Like a shark or lion, he has no enemies, no one who is capable of harming him, so he has no fear. When he moves into a new town and builds his first derrick, he meets a young fire-and-brimstone evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine), the closest thing to a leader the huddled peasants of this God-forsaken patch of desert can claim. Eli wants to assert his alpha-male status in town, so he very pleasantly asks Daniel if he can perform a blessing of the derrick at the opening ceremony. Daniel very courteously agrees. This is the politically savvy thing to do: there's nothing lost in tossing a ceremonial bone to the local yokels, but the next afternoon, Daniel simply ignores Eli and steals the blessing idea for himself.
Daniel Day-Lewis is spectacular. He's only made three movies this decade, after appearing on only five in the 1990s and nine in the 1980s. Part of me wishes we could see him more often, but his scarcity increases his value; two English actors who could use some scarcity come to mind: Jude Law has appeared in 15 films since breaking through in The Talented Mister Ripley eight years ago; Twenty-two year-old Keira Knightley has appeared in fifteen films in the last five years.
There is barely a cast worth mentioning beyond Day-Lewis and Dano: Kevin J. O'Connor (The Mummy) has a few scenes as Daniel's brother, and Ciarán Hinds's (Munich) part must have been bigger in the script, because he's barely in the movie.
What about the work of director/screenplay adaptor Paul Thomas Anderson? His direction is deft and powerful, and mostly restrained and clever. I am pleased with almost all of his choices. I found the final scene of the film to be a odd mix of absurdity and restraint- Anderson almost obliterates our sympathies with both lead characters mere moments before the curtain draws to a close.
My only serious complaint with Anderson's choices is the score. Besides a few classical pieces, the original score is a bombastic mess. Overwrought and distracting, it's the worst score I have heard since the synth-rock mess of Ladyhawke (1985). The original score is credited to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, making his feature-film scoring debut. Stanley Kubrick, a big influence on Anderson, used to commission original scores for his movies, then toss out most of the material and replace it with hand-picked classical selections. It's hard to tell how much of the score is by Greenwood and how much is lifted from the classical world, but several musical cues, including the opening sequence, sound exactly like music from Kubrick's The Shining.
I found it hard to categorize and evaluate my opinion of this movie for two reasons: so much of the movie's value comes directly from Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, which is superb; also, I hated the score so much, it clouds my judgment. If I try and see past my dislike of the score, I have to give There Will Be Blood a high grade. For a movie I will never see again, it was certainly one of the best of the year.

Second Viewing Update (March 4, 2008, Belmont Studio Cinema): It's been two months, and in my original review I said I would never see this movie again. Over the last two months, I have related my opinions of the movie to friends, I read all the pre-Oscars discussions online and in the press, and my memory of the movie distilled and mellowed. I decided that I would see the movie again.At the original screening, I spent most of my mental energy following the action onscreen. There is very little dialog, and the director makes every scene count for something. The protagonist, Daniel Plainview, only speaks what he's thinking in one or two scenes, so you have to pay attention to know what's going on. For example, after Plainview and his brother Henry go swimming, Daniel unintentionally catches Henry's deceitfulness, but it's played so subtly, it's not obvious. The following shot of Daniel floating in the ocean, with a large wave cresting behind him, is a powerful symbol of Plainview's rising suspicion and rage.
In my original review (above), I described the music as "overwrought and distracting". I decided to pay special attention to the score this time, and I noticed that the music is only "overwrought and distracting" in one scene. In other places in the movie, the score is aggressively avant-garde and modern, but the tone is appropriate to the action.
I think it's a compliment to the picture that it doesn't all sink in on the first viewing. Some might take "rewards repeat viewing" as a backhanded compliment-- I am sure the producers wish it was more rewarding the first time around -- but I mean those words in a good way. It's a complicated and thrilling ride, which challenged me all the way through.








January 5, 2008

The Golden Compass

goldencompassA fatally flawed compromise between a thoughtful adventure for adults and kids (Fellowship of the Ring?) and a simple kids' adventure story.

Director Chris Weitz (Down To Earth, About A Boy) is in way over his head at the helm of this production. The movie lacks any clear vision, and as a result, the end product feels like it's been pulled in three directions at once.

It's sad that this movie was produced by New Line Cinema, the same studio which took a chance on a Kiwi director (Peter Jackson) and the notoriously unfilmable fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings. Obviously, there's a big difference between Tolkein's fantasy epic and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman: Lord of the Rings has been beloved for generations, whereas the first book of His Dark Materials was published in 1995. I would argue that adapting The Golden Compass is a more commercial endeavor than Lord of the Rings. Pullman didn't know it when he was writing, but he created a very similar world to Harry Potter, but with a female lead: Lyra Belacqua is a 11-year-old orphan, in a world full of talking animals, witches and magic. Lyra has untapped power, and may be the fufillment of a powerful prophecy. Sound familiar? The Golden Compass novel is also brainy, allegorical, and exquisitely detailed. Weitz tries to jam in every detail (much like the first Harry Potter movie) instead of letting the story tell itself. Every detail is told to us, starting with the oldest trick in the Hollywood playbook: if the producers are worried that audiences won't "get" a movie, tack on a voice-over prologue which explains everything. It costs nothing to add this onto the front, and the producers have covered their asses. What can the director say in response? 'I don't want my audience to understand what's happening'? 'That prologue ruins my movie'? Not gonna happen! Besides all the exposition written into the dialogue, Lyra meets witch Serafina Pekkala, who drops in long enough to fill in all the blanks which Lyra needs. Apparently the producers decided all the fanciful names are too confusing, because each time Pekkala says the name of a person, place, or thing, we see a flash of that person, place, or thing onscreen, all directly cribbed from already-shot scenes we see later in the movie. The audience would not need all this hand-holding if the book were adapted better.

At 113 minutes, it feels at least 20 minutes too short. Each chapter of Lyra's adventure feels condensed and cropped. Like too many movies in the last decade, there's no opening title sequence. I don't recall ever before complaining that a movie needed a title sequence, but a 2 or 3 minute title sequence would be an ideal way to introduce us to this world which is a slight alternate to our own. Instead, we get a tacked-on crib sheet prologue, then Lyra is running around campus.

We meet all the principal characters so quickly, then move on to the next sequence, that only the actor's fine performances (and my familiarity with the characters in the book) are enough for me to be emotionally involved. Dakota Blue Richards is above average as the clever and brave Lyra. Nicole Kidman plays the cold b**** role all too well. Daniel Craig is barely in the movie, and Sam Elliott just plays a folksy cowboy who needs some barrettes. Ian McKellen is distracting as Iorek Byrnison: his performance was fine, but he really should stay away from fantasy roles from now on. Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee must have signed on for a trilogy, but instead, they get only two scenes in one movie. Jim Carter plays John Faa, king of the gyptians, but I remember him most fondly as Déjà Vu, a member of the French Underground in the Elvis war-movie parody Top Secret!

Sadly, we could see the budget meetings taking place onscreen: the film is frosted with long, sweeping effects shots, which are all wonderfully rendered. We watch Lyra and Mrs. Coulter soar over their alternate-reality London in a magnificent zeppelin; we see Lyra carried down a London avenue in a fantastical carriage; the gyptian's boat, a schooner crossed with a paddle-wheel riverboat, crosses the North Atlantic. They're all wonderful, but they were also too expensive to edit out of the movie. These traveling sequences would fit right into a expansive 150 minute epic, but they simply made us sad for the movie that could have been.

Speaking of missed opportunities, the movie fails to capture the magic of most of my favorite scenes in the book, but I have tried not to write this review as a lover of the book, because I know all too well, books are not movies, and vice versa.

Perhaps in one of the alternate Earths within the story, this film, at the hands of a strong, visionary director, could have captured the hearts and imaginations of adults and kids alike. I am glad I am only fond of the book, and not a devotee, or then I would be truly disappointed.

THEATER NOTES: I have a definite bias against non-stadium seating. Every whisper in the row behind you might as well be in your ear, and that's what keeps happening when I go to AMC Burlington. A teenage girl was behind me, with her Dad, and she whispered to Dad several times in the first 30 minutes. If she weren't with her father, I might have turned around and shushed her, but I'm not about to chastise someone's kid- there's too many crazed hockey dads in New England! I settled for cranking my head around a few times, making "huffy" noises, and shifting in my seat in an annoyed manner. After a half hour, she shut up: she either figured out I was pissed off, her dad told her to settle down, or she was too bored with the movie to say anything more.