15 January 2008

The Movie-a-Thon Update

Crossing off Atonement, The Savages, and There Will Be Blood

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Lars and the Real Girl
Gone Baby Gone
I'm Not There
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
The Orphanage

The Savages: I'm pretty sure I'm reaching the saturation point for quirky, Sundance dramedies about misery and family squabbles. When this film opened up on a parade of elderly women in cheer leading outfits, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to enjoy the next few hours. When the family of their father's dead girlfriend were all 300 pounds, I was aggressively turned off by this attempt to both set the film in the real world and play up its own quirkiness once again.

However, as the film progressed and as it became clear that this was less a film about nursing home antics and more about the lives of two troubled siblings who just happen to be thrown together by a family problem, I started to gain a greater appreciation for what the film was doing. Similar to Margot at the Wedding, this film is one writer/director's attempt to explain themself or, rather, attempt to explain how a person's past and present influence their creative processes. In both films, the central characters are writers, depicted as sad individuals either too afraid to explore their inner feelings or too eager to exploit them without realizing the effects it can have on the people closest to them.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is easily one of the the top 5 actors working today, and Laura Linney's unmistakable persona is always a welcome addition to any film, sometimes the only welcome addition (The Nanny Diaries, for example). Here, they're as reliable as ever, managing to make watchable the lives of two sad sack characters who are still struggling to figure out their lives. The Savages is, if nothing else, a director driven film, and Jenkins was fortunate to secure such great actors for her film.

Atonement: What can you say about a movie you've been anticipating for 6 months, a movie that's score you listened to endlessly, a movie that filled your photobucket with stills of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy on a country estate?

As much as I'd like to say that it's my favorite film of all time, I can't. As much as I'd like to say that it's one of the Top 5 films made this year, I can't. Any other year, it would have easily made it but not this year.

But did I love it? Absolutely. Have I seen it more than once? You bet. Am I going to buy the DVD? Yes.

As a big fan of Joe Wright's previous film Pride & Prejudice and, let's face it, an obsessive follower of all things Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, I couldn't help but expect a lot from this film. And, for the first section, it really did deliver. Bolstered by a quite impressive performance by Saoirse Ronan, the first third of Atonement, set against the back drop of a hot summer's day on an English country estate before the start of World War 2, is gorgeously light saturated and sensuous. When McAvoy is writing a letter to Cecilia, operatic music soaring behind him, we are given glimpses of Knightley as smoke and light fill our field of vision. We are just as infatuated with her as McAvoy. Joe Wright knows how to capture Keira Knightley, how to play up her beauty and sensual haughtiness. It is a testament to Joe Wright's skill that, through little touches like this, it becomes easy to imagine that these two are meant to be together, even as circumstances prevent their budding romance to build on normal terms.

At this point, let me just say that, having read the novel that this is based on, Christopher Hampton's screenplay impressively manages to maneuver around the book's sometimes time jumbling and inner monologue driven narrative. When the story requires a certain scene to be viewed from different perspectives, the screenplay wisely sticks to this, ignoring the temptation to simplify. And, in the end, when Vanessa Redgrave is called on to make a 5 minute part as memorable as she possibly can, the completely new set up for the film's final chapter thankfully finds a way to reveal the secrets of the film outside of the book's inner monologue resolution that would not have worked here.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned the middle section of the film up until now. The reason for this is simple: though very well done and satisfying, the middle section of the film doesn't work as well as the first. James McAvoy does deliver an absolutely spectacular performance in this part, that much is assured, and the scope of the Dunkirk sequence is certainly admirable, but there's something about it that doesn't quite seem to measure up. I'm not sure what. Maybe it's just that Joe Wright is more at home in the light saturated universe of Pride & Prejudice and this film's first third, or maybe it's the screenplay. That being said, I don't want to undersell how good James McAvoy is here, how well he inhabits this overwhelmingly good man who has had his life unfairly ruined by lies. The shot of him, exhausted and standing in front of a film screen as a romantic scene unfolds, is an image I will carry with me for quite some time.

When all the characters again come together in the section headed by Romola Garai's strong turn as a grown up Briony, things pick up, but the quality of the first third is never really duplicated until Vanessa Redgrave brings the film to a close, both shattering the illusion of a happy ending and somewhat providing it. Yes, this is yet another 2007 film in which a writer struggles to reconcile their art with their reality, but it works well here. We begin to understand that all the typing we've heard throughout the film in the masterful score by Dario Marianelli is meant to signify Briony telling her story, the story of how one lie destroyed so many lives.

There Will Be Blood: Wow.

I mean, wow.

First off, let me just say that I've never been a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. Watching Magnolia was, for me, like having a teeth pulled for 3 hours by a very self-important dentist who probably could've pulled the tooth out more effectively in 90 minutes (if that analogy makes sense), and I didn't make it past ten minutes of Punch Drunk Love.

So, imagine my surprise when I came out of this movie blown away. This is the kind of film directors dream of making, the kind of out there project they dream of getting the financing to realize. If nothing else, this is a directorial masterwork. The sheer scope of what Anderson is creating here-from the bombastic spiritual sessions to the flaming rivers of oil shooting from the ground-clearly announces to the world that Paul Thomas Anderson is a force to be reckoned with. Much like his film's central character, Anderson is a man obsessed, compelled even, to strive towards something better on his own terms.

As that title character, Daniel Day Lewis continues to impress, adding another overwhelmingly committed performance to his already brimming canon. But it is Paul Dano, all bottled up aggression exploding in fire and brimstone platitudes-that really impressed me. It takes a lot to face off against such an intensely dedicated actor like Daniel Day Lewis, and Dano more than holds his own. This is, after all, less a film about the oil business then a film about the conflict between these two people, driven to madness by such different yet oddly similar forces, and both actors have to be at the top of their game.

Much like No Country, a lot of who you feel about this film may depend on your interpretation of the ending. Some may be turned off by its devolution to sheer insanity but, as many major critics have pointed out, its hard to imagine how else this story could have resolved itself.

My only complaint: I am not as big a fan of the score as some. There are moments when it reaches incredible heights, but there are others when it just seems gratuitous to the scene. I wish directors today would realize that, sometimes, a scene can be more powerful simply by the decision NOT to accompany it with strings and horns.

1 comment:

Liz said...

There was no score in No Country For Old Men if I remember correctly?