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And the Oscar goes to…

February 24, 2008

So yesterday I attended a marathon showing of the five Best Picture nominees. Apparently this is something that the AMC theatre chain does annually, or at least has started doing annually.

Some people might wonder, “Five films in a row? Several of them longer than two hours? Surely that’s madness!” I respond, of course, that it’s Sparta, and kick them down a well.

It sounds like it would be more than you could handle, but I tell you what, I loved it. Definitely called for stretch/bathroom breaks in between, but otherwise it was a wonderful experience to just set aside a day and let all these different films wash over me.

But what did I think of the films? I’ll give you a brief rundown in the order in which they were screened:

MICHAEL CLAYTON

Maybe it’s because it was the first one screened, and therefore the others had to be measured against it, but I have to admit, Michael Clayton was easily my favorite of the group.

It’s what my friend Brian called an “intellectual thriller”, and I think that’s an apt description. It’s a fairly slow movie, with a lot of dialogue — but the dialogue is good and it’s very well-delivered. There were very few lines of dialogue that stood out to me as being particularly well-written (aside from “I am Shiva the God of Death”), but none stood out as poorly-written, either. It was all very natural and believable, and I think that’s an achievement in itself.

There’s not a lot of action or suspenseful moments, but when there is suspense, it’s pretty tense. Some great moments of directing — almost all of these films have a long shot or two, with varying degrees of complexity or success, and in this film there’s an “assassination” sequence that all plays out in one shot. Although the “cool” factor is one thing, the choice to do the action in a single shot is also a powerful narrative tool, demonstrating how quick and ruthless the process is. It happens without cuts and it’s still over in just a couple minutes.

I’ve become a fan of George Clooney, which I resisted in the ER/Batman and Robin days. I don’t think the “hot young man” thing was ever right for him, but the “self-assured and sexy middle-aged man” thing is in his favor. Probably the salt-and-pepper hair is what makes that difference.

His performance is mostly restrained. He has a few moments of the smarmy sarcasm he displays in the Ocean’s series, but in the context of the film I think they’re earned and he pulls them off well. For a tense socio-political thriller, the film had some good laughs, and many of them were Clooney. That said, I think he’s going to lose out his Best Actor statue to Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood).

Tom Wilkinson turns in a phenomenal performance as the brilliant manic-depressive Arthur, and I do think he’s got a good shot at the statue, although Casey Affleck and Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) have a decent shot as well.

Oh, and shout-out to Tilda Swinton, who never really plays an outright villainess, but a more subtle “person who makes bad decisions for their own sake”. She plays that same role here but she does it so well, and across such a range of characters through her career, that you can hardly call her typecast.

The score is fine, some of the more intense moments were ratcheted up yet another notch with James Newton Howard‘s pumping score, but for the most part the music sat in the background and just added color to the world, which is as it should be. It is nominated for best score, and it’s not bad, but there are other scores on the block that have a better shot at it.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Apparently this is a really intense movie that “grabs you by the balls and shakes you around,” to quote my eminently quote-able friend Travis. I must not be watching the same movie.

As usual for P.T. Anderson, the film is too goddamn long and self-indulgent. This film does not need to be the three hours that it is. Part of this is his penchant for long, unbroken shots, but unlike Michael Clayton, they feel unmotivated.

Some of them make sense, like the long shot of the workers working the pipeline when Daniel gets his son back, it’s very old-style Kurosawa tableau type stuff.

But in other cases, it’s like P.T.A. shot a bunch of coverage and decided not to edit most of it. I suppose he was going for a more “real” performance, but it really just looks like the actors are holding position expecting a cut, not getting it, and moving on to the next line. Just cutting out the unnecessary dead space in dialogue would have trimmed the movie by half an hour.

The movie has very little intensity, aside from a few strong scenes, but it tries to make itself more intense through the music, which is awful. The whole thing is overlaid with totally unmotivated tense string chords that would be more appropriate to a direct-to-DVD slasher pic than an oil-drilling film. The movie takes place in the deserts of California and I still expected someone to get eaten by a shark at some point. It’s a cheap trick that only makes it more obvious that the film has no intensity on its own (the most intense parts of the film were the few parts with no music at all).

Aside from the deafened son, there was almost no character development at all, and ultimately I didn’t really understand what the point of the film was. Characters would appear in the film and then disappear for an hour or more, only to show up later and act like they were important to the story.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano are the stand-out performances here and the only thing that made this film worth watching. Dano’s faith healing exorcism of a woman’s arthritis is, as Day-Lewis’ character remarks, “One goddamn hell of a show.” Dano’s an actor with guts, willing to get crazy when the character needs it, and it’s frightening and awe-inspiring.

Day-Lewis’ turn as the shrewd businessman is extraordinary and, as I said above, I can see him getting the Oscar. I wasn’t as impressed with “I drink your milkshake” as everyone else was, but it’s one hell of a weird line and he delivers it with vigor. I really enjoyed his performance, and the scenes with Day-Lewis and Dano together are the great parts of the movie. The highlight for me was the baptism scene. It was tense and dark and funny all at once. If the whole movie could have kept the same energy and meaning, that would have been something.

ATONEMENT

Fuck this movie. Seriously. For all the Oscar buzz and nominations this has been getting, this movie is an absolute mess. Stylistically it jumps all over the place, becoming a different movie entirely every fifteen minutes or so. The perspective in time jumps back and forth, and the performances are dull and predictable.

The cinematography is nominated for an Oscar and if it wins, I think I might be sick. The “look” of the film — whether by grading or in-camera filtration — was way overdone pretty much all the way through. We discover towards the end that the movie is, essentially, a book that the character of Briony has written, so I guess that makes the filtration bit more forgivable, but still, it all felt like a jumble of stuff that makes a film Oscar-y. Take some World War II, throw in an unrequited love, a bit of sexual aberrancy, and heavy sepia-like filtration, and voila! Oscar buzz.

The one good part about the film is the score, which does a great job of dovetailing from sound effects to music and back again, often bridging the gap between scenes or sequences. The long shot in the film of the British evacuation is a phenomenal technical achievement, and I’m especially impressed by how they managed to work a singing choir onscreen into the musical score; the timing was impeccable. I can see this winning for best score and not being too put-out by it.

The conceit of the film — that the happy parts are Briony’s eponymous atonement for what she did — makes for an interesting theoretical discussion: real life is like this, the happy version is like that. And in a movie, since both cases are made up, isn’t it better to let the characters have their happiness?

An interesting point, but as an actual act of “atonement”, it’s horseshit. Briony ruined two peoples’ lives and I have no sympathy for her. She never told the truth to anyone that mattered, and doing it now is a cowardly cop-out. Fuck her, and fuck the movie for thinking that would work.

JUNO

I’ve seen this before, but it was part of the package. As much as I like it, I don’t really understand why it was nominated for Best Picture. It’s good, but the BEST of last year? Even in the RUNNING? I dunno about that. Then again, I can’t think of a lot of other good stuff from last year, so there you go.

As a drama, it’s pretty strong stuff, if fairly standard indie fare. I will admit that the moment when Vanessa first holds her new baby, and they look each other in the eyes, I start to tear up like the bitch I am. As a comedy, it has a tendency to skirt the edge of Mean Girls-type humor — which is not a bad thing. If anything I kind of wish Tina Fey had punched up the script a little if they wanted to go in that direction.

Ellen Page does a great turn as Juno, she’s got a great balance of smart maturity and childlike immaturity that I really haven’t seen in any other young actress, and I hope she wins the Oscar. But like Little Miss Sunshine last year, I kind of see this more as a token indie-nod than a real runner when it comes to best picture.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

It’s funny. Everyone tells me “It’s not the best, but come on, it’s the Coen Brothers, you have to see it.”

I’m going to go further and say “It’s not the best, and it’s the Coen Brothers, so you’ve already seen it.”

Pop quiz: a small-town man gets embroiled way over his head over a whole crapload of money, while the small-town sheriff puts the pieces together with a kind of backwoods brilliance and rural wit, nonetheless arriving too late to stop the bloodbath.

Quiz question one: Did I just describe No Country for Old Men, or Fargo?

Yeah.

No Country was basically Fargo in Texas, with less personality. Interestingly, I think you could have swapped the titles of There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men and both titles would have fit better.

Some good dialogue, mostly Tommy Lee Jones’ character, and mostly standard Texas Sheriff wit. (Example: “This is a hell of a mess, ain’t it Sheriff?” “Yeeup. And if it ain’t, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.”)

The film is probably the most intense of the lot, and does it without relying on stupid music tricks, so points there. And Javier Bardem’s combination of deep voice, exotic accent, and sociopathic attitude make him a great villain. The Coens handle the action fairly well, making interesting and mostly good choices about when to show something in all its gruesome detail and when to leave it to the imagination.

The misstep they take is in leaving the climax completely to the imagination, and the film goes downhill from there with a bunch of seemingly unrelated scenes that never really tie together, including an apparently-obligatory car-gets-T-boned-by-another-car-through-an-intersection scene. The way it’s shot it’s so obvious what’s coming that I just roll my eyes waiting for it to be over, and when it is over, nothing’s really been accomplished by the scene story-wise.

And really, that was my feeling the last half-hour of the film. Of all the films I saw yesterday, only No Country made me fidget and want it to end. And it wasn’t because it was the last film of the night and I wanted to go home. I could’ve watched more films because I was really enjoying myself. It was just boring.

MY PICK

My vote for Best Picture, of the five, goes to Michael Clayton. I could live with Juno getting it. But I doubt either will. It will either go to Atonement or No Country, is my guess.

I’m also rooting for Transformers to take the VFX Oscar.

Anyway, I will not be holding a running commentary on my blog here, so don’t worry about checking it and just enjoy the show!

From → filmmaking, reviews, story

One Comment
  1. *_*Antoine*_* permalink

    … I liked Atonement

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