Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Of course you'll have a bad impression of New York if you only focus on the pimps and the C.H.U.D.s..."

A Weekend at the Movies: Last weekend was the first one in ages that I wasn't bogged down with school stuff--ah, semestered system, how I love you in early January...--so I managed to catch four movies, far more than my usual average of zero.

Now, I tend to steer clear of movie reviews--strictly speaking, these are the very first to appear on my blog--for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

1. There are so many professional reviewers out there that I feel like I have very little to contribute.

2. I have several friends who are much more adept at movie reviews than I, and I'd prefer not to highlight the disparity, thank you very much.

3. My sense is that I won't be able to review terribly well without giving away vital plot points. My standard answer when asked about a movie is typically "go see it, then we'll discuss" (which actually seems fairly pretentious in print--damn) and that policy is probably best applied to the blog as well, but I'm starved for non-list related content, so here we are...

On that admittedly less-than-confident note, off we go:

Atonement (Friday night): B+. Should I be weirded out by the fact that Atonement the book--which is, arguably primarily (next to, you know, the whole "love conquers all" angle), a meditation on the writing process--actually works much better as a film? Maybe a bit, but there's no denying that it does. I picked up the book in O'Hare Airport in December because I knew I wanted to see the movie and I'd heard great things about McEwan. Now, there's no denying that the man can flat-out write. In fact, the problem might just be that he's too good; has too much to say. Time and again I would be struck by something and say (not literally, of course) "wow, that's eloquent," but I also found myself zoning out on occasion. The best way I can describe his style is that everything he writes is interesting, just not entirely necessary.

The film, on the other hand, fairly zips along, especially in the first act. I loved how Joe Wright (this year's snub in the Best Director category --apparently, every year, the Academy just assumes that one of the five Best Picture nominees mysteriously directed itself) played with the narrative: showing scenes out of order or the same scene from a different vantage point. The second act, set in Dunkirk, while visually arresting, was, for me, the dullest stretch. The final act is probably the strongest (though the less I say about it here, the better.) The performances are uniformly strong--McAvoy, Knightley, and newcomer Saoirse Ronan are all excellent--the soundtrack is gorgeous, and the story is compelling, yet, somehow, when you add it all up, it's not nearly as good as you think it should or could be. This is precisely the kind of that should linger with you days after seeing it, but, my guess is, it won't. I like it and I'm not disappointed that it's up for Best Picture, but it doesn't have the impact of a No Country For Old Men, or even Michael Clayton.

(Saturday afternoon): A-.
I have to say: it was kind of awesome. Before we went to see it, Carrie, Taylor, and I wondered aloud what the monster would like and how long into the movie they'd wait before showing it, with Carrie and I speculating that they might go the Lost route and simply refuse to show it (I was concerned that the monster was going to be underwhelming). But, no, in retrospect, that would've sucked. As it turns out, the monster is pretty scary (and its offspring? Legitimately terrifying. Seriously: pants-poopingly frightening--and wouldn't that look good on the back of the DVD? "Pants-poopingly frightening."). And the film itself? Really hangs together, frankly. I like how they knew they had about 85 minutes (actually, more like 81: much like Return of the King, the film hits its original, superior ending, but then decides to keep going; but unlike ROTK, they went on for 4 instead of 40 minutes) worth of material and didn't try to pad it out to 110. On the whole, I really enjoyed it. The partygoers in the opening scenes even listened to good music (and Architecture in Helsinki).

At any rate, since there are a ton of reviews out there (and everyone basically knows the gist of the movie), I'm going to limit myself to commenting on the three major criticisms that I've heard about the film:

1. The main characters are idiots (roughly halfway down the page here): no, not really. Obviously, staying in the city--which the gang ultimately elects to do in order to save Beth, Rob's true love--isn't the most ideal decision, but, beyond that, the methods they use to retrieve her (sticking to the subway tunnels when the monster is above ground, moving back up once it's clear--very, very clear--that the tunnels are no longer safe) are beyond reproach. And anyway, it's a fucking monster movie. Reviewers should be jubilant that the leads aren't trying to reason with the beast. To put this complaint into perspective, in that same item, the remarkably petty TMQ also complains that the timeline is completely unrealistic, as there's no way that the government would act so swiftly in trying to kill the monster. To which I say: good point! Leaving out a marathon House Subcommittee meeting on the feasibility of nuking a 100,000 ton sea-dwelling killing machine is totally unforgivable! I take back what I said about liking the movie because it was short. I want--nay: demand--the 14-hour director's cut!

2. Too much shaky-cam:
Um...probably a little. Then again, at least they stayed true to the concept. No doubt people would fault director Drew Goddard if Hud (the character with the camcorder and the film's informal narrator) thoughtfully composed each shot. I didn't actually find this too distracting and, in many ways, it was actually kind of refreshing to see a monster movie entirely from a commoner's perspective, even if this means jettisoning the requisite scene where it dawns on the fictional President that everyone is doomed (best example: Superman II).

3. Too 9/11y.
Sigh...I firmly believe that people leveling this complaint are either: being completely disingenuous or totally unimaginative. Regarding the first point: I get--and I think the filmmakers probably deliberately played up the fact (or deliberately failed to downplay)--that certain scenes eerily resembled stuff from September 11th, particularly in the first twenty minutes, but, really, I don't see how this is even remotely avoidable. I really don't. Does this mean that disaster movies can no longer be set in New York? This strikes me as patently absurd. It would be one thing if one character saw the monster and said something ridiculous (for instance: "wow, and I thought 9/11 was scary!"--in other words, attempting to trivialize the tragic), but to show fictional characters being unsettled by unsettling events that happen to be set in NYC is...fine by me.

Regarding the second point: on the other hand, Cloverfield really doesn't have that much in common with 9/11. Without being flippant, one event involved airplanes flying into buildings and real people dying, while the other involves an...enormous sea monster that shits out creepy spider babies! COME ON!!

(Saturday night): A+.
I mean, yeah, it's inexcusable that it took me so long to see this (I think Shuk had just gone to see it before we saw McGowan's near no-hitter in July). But, wow, what a movie. (And a killer soundtrack, too.) The story is amazingly ordinary: boy plays music, boy meets girl that plays music, boy plays music with girl (believe me, I'm barely simplifying it at all), but it's just so wonderfully executed. Case in point: it contains two scenes that are simply the most authentic (and thus, completely riveting) things I've seen on film all year.

The first occurs early in the film when the girl (played by Czech musician Marketa Irglova) takes the guy (played by Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the Irish band The Frames) into a music shop to play the piano for him. He proceeds to get out his guitar and, in roughly a minute, shows her the structure for one of his songs ("Falling Slowly"--which, in a surprise turn, actually received an Oscar nomination). And then they just play--at first tentatively, then more assuredly--in one, uninterrupted, four minute shot. The second scene happens near the film's end, when the guy and the girl (they actually don't have names in the movie, so it's not simply a matter of me being super-lazy) and three other background musicians are laying down their first track. While warming up, they sound awful--which, come to think of it, is kind of a cinematic cheat, since there's no indication, either before or after, that they're anything except great--and the producer begins to roll his eyes and whips out a magazine to keep himself occupied. Then, the session starts, and Hansard begins to belt out a lovely ballad (called "Lies"). And, once again, it's riveting--partly because the music is outstanding and partly because Hansard and Irglova are just so goddamn likeable that you're desperate for them to succeed. Again, it's presented (more or less) as one continuous four-minute shot, but the scene, for me, is made by the one cut about halfway through. It's to the producer, who slowly looks up in wonderment, as if to say "these guys are fucking terrific."

There's actually a third, equally wonderful scene in the film, but: SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, DO NOT HIGHLIGHT THE FOLLOWING TEXT UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE. During the scene where the guy finds out that the girl is married, he asks her if she loves her husband. She, of course, replies in untranslated Czech. Well, it turns out that her reply is "no, I love you." Which is fantastic and heart-breaking all at once, since the guy never finds this out. Upping the cool factor still more is the fact that this scene was, allegedly, improvised and Irglova ad-libbed the line, meaning that Hansard--who, not surprisingly, does not speak Czech--didn't know what she'd said either. I've yet to tell this story without the person I'm telling it to responding with "awwwww."

Anyway, I can't really do this one justice, so I'll stop, but if you haven't seen it: do.

American Psycho
(early Sunday morning): D.
Didn't get in 2000 when I saw with Misha in the theatre...don't get it now. Misha swears this is because, during the incredibly creepy/uncomfortable threesome scene in Patrick Bateman's apartment, the two guys that sat behind us in the theatre made it roughly 100 times more awkward by shouting out (repeatedly), "yeah, give it to them Bateman. Give it to them hard" (were I more of a man, I would have unleashed a Constanza-esque opposite-inspired "shut the hell up or I will shut you up. And if you don't believe me, just try me, because I would LOVE IT!"--to this day, maybe his finest moment), but, no, that's not it. I just don't think it's a very good movie. In fact, I'll go one step further: I see no reason why the movie should have been made at all. The book, written in '91 but set in '87, is virtually unreadable--like seriously awful...there's a five page (repeat: five page) stretch where Bret Easton Ellis describes absolutely everything in Bateman's apartment in what I recall being one seemingly interminable sentence (not unlike this one!)--so why did it seem like a good idea to make it in 2000? As an 80s parody, it feels pretty half-hearted, probably because the decade itself is so easily mockable (I'm still not quite sure on what level I'm supposed to appreciate Bateman's stilted-but-apparently-supposed-to-be-seen-as-off-the-cuff lectures on Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, and Whitney Houston--I told you, I don't get this movie!); as a drama, it's too silly; and as a thriller, it's not gripping.

As an added kick to the groin, after re-watching it with Taylor (who enjoyed the first hour, but professed to be completely baffled by the last thirty minutes), I researched the making of the movie and discovered that Mary Harron (the director) and Guinevere Turner (the co-screenwriter) both swear up and down that Bateman actually killed everyone he's shown to have killed in the film, even though many of actions late in the film--dropping the chainsaw on the prostitute, Paul Allen's apartment serving as a corpse depot, Bateman exploding multiple police cars by simply firing a gun at them, how he escapes the office (never shown) after his final rampage--are completely and utterly fantastical. I'm sorry, but the only way the movie makes sense at all is if Bateman's actions are mostly (if not entirely) in his head. But, whatever, I don't care enough to get too upset.

(The one running subplot that I've always enjoyed is that Bateman--allegedly a criminal mastermind--is a ridiculously bad liar, especially when confronted by the seemingly unsuspecting detective, as played by Willem Dafoe. As far as gags go, it's a good one.)

(Incidentally, for a much better Ellis adaptation, check out 2002's underrated-though-by-no-means-great The Rules of Attraction--no, not the Brosnan-Moore vehicle, the one with James Van Der Beek. Dawson is undeniably disturbing--and not simply because he's alarmingly hydrocephalic--as an emotionless drug dealing college student (who just so happens to be Patrick Bateman's brother, Sean). There's a scene (probably no more than three minutes long) somewhere late in Act Two where Kip Pardue rapidly narrates his summerlong trip to Europe that is worth the price of a rental alone--plus I've always found the ending to be rather clever.)


Jesse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse said...

Your research into "Once" nearly brought tears to my eyes. Well played, sir. A fantastic addition to a fantastic movie; I look forward to re-watching it now.

Kyle Wasko said...

Thank you, sir. When I stumbled upon that tidbit, my first thought was "well...that's just perfect."

Apparently they're dating in real life, which is also kinda cool.

Glad you've seen it. Just a terrific film.