Sunday, February 24, 2008

23rd Feb 08 - There Will Be Blood

We squeezed this one in just before the Oscars to ensure I see the majority of nominated films and can therefore have a well-informed opinion. Not that a lack of information would stop me from having an opinion of course. And not that I go out and watch a film just because it’s been nominated for an Oscar. Atonement has scored plenty of prizes but you don’t see me clamouring to watch that. Period drama featuring smug skeletor Knightley? No thank you.

There Will Be Blood would have been on my cinema menu awards-laden or not, being from P.T. Anderson, the director of Magnolia (a languid beast of a film) and staring Daniel Day-Lewis, whose accents are so delicious to listen to (see: Gangs of New York) that I’d even stoop to watching him in a period drama with Knightley, as long as he spent the majority of the film talking in a thick accent about how rubbish she is.

Anderson’s newest piece is another languid beast, only one that wakes up every now and then and delivers a punishing bite. It tells the tale of Daniel Plainview, an “oil-man” who’s fantastic at what he does, but also develops unfortunate personality traits such as wanting to be better than everyone. Nothing wrong with that, I say, but Daniel takes it to the extreme during the course of his life, perhaps further than I ever would. You’ll see what I mean if you watch it. In fact, I won’t go further into the plot as it’ll ruin the ebb and flow of the story, and also because it’s three hours long and would take me forever to explain.

Instead, I’ll say that it’s good. Want more detail than that? Ok. It’s both a fascinating character study and an epic tale of greed, striking chords with folk who strive relentlessly for success despite its ensuing isolation, or who, you know, like oil a lot. Day-Lewis is of course excellent, although the crazier side to Daniel is perhaps reminiscent of his turn in Gangs. What’s more interesting is when he shows us the cracks, be it tender moments with his son or the bitter stubbornness that’s the fuse to his dynamite. But it’s Paul Dano (the silent teen in Little Miss Sunshine) who really impresses as a preacher-type, his demeanour being calm, suspicious, manipulative - well, he does claim to channel his lord. His creepy religious obsessives (“congregation” I believe they’re called) are offset against Daniel’s lust for control. Both as crazy as each other was my take, and thankfully there was a lack of “money bad, religion good” philosophy, with questionable actions on both parts.

An impressive score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood keeps your attention snapped to the screen and builds a tone that is ominous and unexpected. You can easily get lost in the depths of this film, with its substantial running time, measured pace and unknown plot directions. But lost in a good way - it’s not easy for a three hour film to hold you, and much as I likened the Coen’s No Country for Old Men to a walk out in a vast wilderness, There Will Be Blood is not a film experience to be undertaken lightly, but will be rewarding to those who attempt it. I’ve been highly impressed by the films of 2008 so far (unbaked Dylan aside) and There Will Be Blood keeps up the standard with yet another CF3. Let’s see what the Oscars say. Or - as I predict - let’s disagree…

20th Feb 08 - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I’ve just bought myself a coffee percolator. It makes noises like Darth Vader underwater and has made me a tad hyper, both from the excitement of having a new toy to play with and also from drinking an extortionate amount of Columbian coffee. I’ve wanted to get one of these things for ages but never really got round to it. But this week I realised that I might have a massive, unexplained cerebral accident tomorrow and lose the ability to use any of my body save for one eyelid. So I decided that if I wanted a coffee percolator then I’d better bloody get one now before it’s too late.

Of course, such a revelation is weirdly specific (most people going with “I might get hit by a bus”) because of this week’s film, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, which is based on the book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle magazine editor who suffered a stroke at the age of 43 and fell into what is known as “locked in syndrome”. His brain was still very much intact but his body was a bit rubbish, and he could only communicate via blinking his right eye. It was in this state that he dictated his book, and it gives a fascinating and unsettling insight into his world.

The film is from Bauby’s point of view, often literally. In fact the first half is almost entirely viewed through his one useful eye (the other one is sewn up in a “eeeeeeeeewwwww” moment where we see needle and thread action from the inside of the eyelid) with his internal dialogue guiding us through his emotional journey and flashbacks to his old life adding to the bitterness of his resulting incapacities. It sounds depressing as hell, but there is a comedic line throughout, Bauby retaining his sense of humour as he watches the world from his “diving bell”. Thank god for comedy, as it lifts the sometimes overwhelming sadness into an emotionally powerful but still enjoyable piece of film.

Oscar nominated director Julian Schnabel has a field day (often with the “out of focus button”) but to captivating effect, the blurred, dream-like P.O.V shots merge into Bauby’s imagination, with swirling colours and sweeping images like mini artworks strung together. But rather than stray off into arty-farty zone, Schnabel ties it down in the real world, and the film is sometimes harshly edited between then and now, jarring those emotions again. There was a point where the P.O.V camera blurred up from Bauby’s tears, matching my own blurred vision and that of almost the entire cinema.

Mathieu Amalric masters the difficult lead role, the majority of his performance sieved through a single eyeball. His helpers are a gang of remarkably beautiful ladies (this is the Frenchest of French films). Their performances all superb, especially as one plays a physio - and as we know, all physios are highly intelligent, beautiful and fantastic.

Though it sounds like another foray into depressing foreign film territory, don’t let the subject matter or subtitles turn you away. This film is both uplifting and upsetting, beautifully shot and acted, altogether emotionally gratifying, and will possibly make you go out and buy a coffee percolator. A wholesome film for the soul, it glides in with a CF3. Now then… I might just go make some more coffee.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

15th Feb 08 - Cloverfield

Monster! There’s a fricking great monster! And oh look. It’s in New York. The current hotspot for all monsters, disasters and sassy rom-coms. Location included, Cloverfield delivers every monster invasion cliché you could imagine, from the screaming army commanders in their billowing plastic tents, to unnecessary missions to rescue damsels in distress, to ludicrous romance in the face of chaos, to slowly building visuals of the scary foe until the final reveal that’s always a little disappointing. Cloverfield’s setting is just another crappo monster film. But it’s done something a bit clever. It’s taken your basic crappo monster film, honed in on one of the running, screaming extras you always see in the background, and given them a camera.

Ah the genius of a simple idea. Suddenly the world of crappo monster films is turned upside down, approached from a fresh angle with staggering effect. The army are still doing their shouty thing, but we’re running past them, wincing at the super loud rockets they’re firing, hoping they know what the hell they’re doing and ducking behind cars to avoid getting caught in the cross-fire or squished by a massive foot. It’s chaotic, dazzling and down-right frightening, sucking away all the roll-your-eyes, here it comes blandness of a typical monster-yawn and replacing it with in-your-face excitement.

Even the cast of characters are rent-a-victim cut-outs, with the heroic lead, his beautiful romantic interest, the nerdy one who makes witty asides, the sardonic girl, and the token minority. But as they carry their camcorder about, either running for their lives or cowering in a corner, they lose the chance to have powerful speeches over the national anthem, or do something heroic in slow motion to the power chords of Aerosmith. They’re just people running about. And you’re right there with them, the audience watching everything through the camera lens. You run when they run. You roll across the ground when they drop the camera. It’s shake-tastic camera work, not surprising considering JJ Abrams is in the producing chair (his philosophy on Lost: if the scene is supposed to be dramatic, then shake that camera goddamnit! Shake it so the audience knows! You can picture the cameraman saying “but surely the music and the plot will make it dramatic?” and Abrams whacks the camera out of his hands in annoyance and berates him with “no, you fool! They won’t know it’s dramatic unless you shake that camera like it’s a can of whipped cream. Now shake it! SHAKE IT!!”)

Sorry, off on a tangent there. Where was I? Ah - shaky-cam. Yes, droves of people have been complaining of motion sickness, and though it can be difficult to watch at times, I’d say you could only get motion sickness if you felt queasy with simple things like rollercoasters, banana flavoured beer, or just generally moving around.

Anyway, Cloverfield is a smart piece of film in terms of concept, and will have your heart beating and your fingers twitching to cover your eyes, especially when some fool suggests turning on the camera’s night vision. It’s good fun, though doesn’t justify the enormous internet hype and “mystery” built up around it over the last six months or so. And though the look and feel is pleasingly fresh, it is ultimately stuck in the confines of the monster-movie clichés. The lean running time is an indicator that though the idea is great, you can’t do a whole lot with it. So, an exciting B-movie done in an entirely new angle, Cloverfield racks up a CF2. And remember: if a giant monster attacks your city, make sure you keep your camera on at all times. At least that way we might get to see a disaster film that isn’t set in New York.

13th Feb 08 - Juno

It’s half term, so the cinema was full of horrible teenagers, gaggling around with their young faces, doing what horrible teenagers do best - chatting on their phones, putting their hoods up, mugging old people and getting pregnant. Even on screen, there they were. Teenagers. Pregnant teenagers all younger than me and horrible.

Ok, maybe on screen it was just th
e one pregnant teen. And that was, of course, Juno. This year’s token “non-weighty/epic” Oscar fodder. To be honest I wasn’t expecting to like this all that much. The TV adverts featured a voiceover man gaily proclaiming that “everyone’s falling for Juno!” Posters were plastered on every other bus, with comments from magazines like Heat, New Woman, Vapid Lifestyles, and Blindly Following Celebrities Instead of Focussing on Real Issues weekly. The film itself features cutesy animated titles and a soundtrack full of two chord tinkles with sugary vocals. It was all pushing my “reject with a miserable sneer” button, often engaged when “everyone falls” for a film I decide isn’t good enough but probably wouldn’t have minded if it didn’t have the hype. See, I can admit flaws like that because I’m a better person. Better than everyone else - have you seen the intro to this site?

Anyway, thankfully some of the clever papers gave this good reviews too, so it was ok for me to like it. And like it I did, to a large extent. The story is Orlando-simple. Sixteen year-old Juno gets preggars by mistake and decides to give her baby up for adoption to a desperate couple. Take the tone one way and you could end up with issues-a-plenty, but Juno heads into the wry comedy zone and nails it. Ellen Page (who did the snipping in Hard Candy) sassess it up as the title character, taking Diablo Cody’s script (also Oscar-nommed) and jabbing sardonic quip after sardonic quip at the lens, but not without a few moments of genuine emotion - check out the quivering mouth-corner during one crying episode. Now that’s what you call control.

Page is supported by an equally strong cast, with Michael Cera (Superbad) playing his now trade-mark quiet but sweet role, his Arrested Development co-star Jason Bateman as the slightly iffy adoptive daddy to be, and equine skeleton Jennifer Garner gets landed with the straight part, but does a darn good job as the non-mother who just wants a baby.

But Juno is a way off a perfect CF5, and that’s because it doesn’t really deliver anything new or try to say anything too profound. Not that every film has to, and not that a film can’t just entertain on its own merits, which this certainly does. But without a steady influx of big belly-laughs, Juno can’t just hang its hat on the comedy peg (one-liners to make you chuckle being its standpoint). The script crackles with wit and off-beat humour, but displaces the cast into Dawson’s Creek / The OC territory, meaning you never really believe these characters could be real. So what’s left is a reasonable drama with some gestures towards themes like love, parenthood and the obvious teenage pregnancy stigma. Such lacking in full-on comedy or drama means Juno stops its climb up the CF ranks at a CF1. I’m not miserably sneering at it, but I’ve certainly not fallen for Juno. She is a teenager after all.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

6th Feb 08 - No Country for Old Men

A welcome return to the cinema after a mini break sees also a welcome return by the Coen brothers with their awards-laden No Country for Old Men. Rather than the standard avenues or predictable high streets of many film efforts, the Coens’ films are like sprawling landscapes, with an unclear route through, overlapping hills on the horizon, unexpected dips, and the occasional hillock jutting up here and there. Their films often need to be seen more than once to absorb them entirely and hoover up every subtle detail (eg. Fargo, O Brother Where Art Tho, The Big Lebowski.) They’re no walk in the park, but nine times out of ten it’s worth the extra effort to break through the crust and gain the meaty film centre.

I’ve just mixed a landscape analogy with a pie analogy, but I’m sure you understand what I mean (or you can pretend to, so people think you’re dead clever like what I am). Anyway, No Country is another very Coen-like piece, its collection of weird, wonderful and down-right scary characters are inter-linked by a big bag of money (mirrored in the likes of Fargo, Lebowski et al). Quietly cool hunter Llewelyn (Josh Brolin - nailing the resourceful hero routine perfectly) stumbles across a pot of cash. Unfortunately for him, an equally quietly cool hunter Anton (Javier Bardem, like a warped toy lion with his mane patted down) would like to get the cash back, only this hunter is morally devoid and a tad insane. He also carries round a big air-gun type thing, useful for blowing locks off doors, and brains out of heads. Following the trail of bodies is wizened sheriff Ed (Tommy Lee Jones, echoing his turn in 2006’s Three Burials and sporting massive ear lobes). It could be a straight forward cat n’ mouse (and giant ear-lobed dog) escapade, but the Coens chuck in curve ball after curve ball to keep the plot fresh, and with an expanse of set pieces so large that you probably really do need to watch it all over again just to recall everything that happens.

The stand-out character is immediately Anton Chigurh. He is violence personified; unstoppable, destructive, without mercy. All the while sporting a gas canister and a bizarre hair-do. The violence is brutal without being too showy. It’s the aftermath that the Coens prefer to hone in on, and the close-up view of a shot gun wound being cleaned out is enough to make you wincingly shuffle in your seat. That’s not the only time you’ll be doing the old seat-shuffle, though. No Country is peppered with terrific scenes, with tense “waiting for the pounce” moments, gripping duels set over a myriad of corners and cars to hide behind, and a dog-v-man swimming race that’s both hilarious and also downright terrifying. Tommy Lee’s sheriff brings an aspect of calm to the proceedings, as well as some of the comedy punches that are littered throughout.

Despite the comedy, this is a dark film overall, with sombre closing thoughts (humans have always been, and will always be, violent shits to each other. Hurray!) and a running time and scope that will take some time to digest. A bit like eating a really big pie. After taking a walk through a vast landscape somewhere. You can’t do these activities off the cuff, or in your lunch hour, and they’ll most likely have an effect on you for a fair while after. But sometimes a brief stroll round the block and a quick pasty just doesn’t really satisfy.

So, to conclude: No Country has steadily risen up the CF ranks the more I’ve considered it. Powerful, thrilling and chock full of memorable performances, it has finally climbed up to a CF3. Save up the energy for a big walk / pie and go see it. Like one of those relatives you like spending time with but… oh I’ll stop with the analogies. Sorry.