Stick insect: overrated after all?

Well, at least when it comes to her latest hit… We went to see Atonement yesterday. I think the book’s one of the best novels to come out of England in the last few years; it’s intellectually stimulating as well as moving, with some grandiose setpieces and a lot of subtlety in its characterisation. (The only Ian McEwan novel I didn’t like so far was Amsterdam, the one he won his Booker Prize for.)

It’s a hell of a book to adapt to the screen, though. So much of it – its narration, its style, its themes and motifs – is, at its heart, literary. It’s a novel about writing and about fiction, and some of this is likely to be spelled out or left out in an adaptation. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to see how often the movie chooses to be bluntly explicit when a more implicit approach would have made things more interesting. Like the trailer embedded below, the film version at times seems to be written in large capitals telling its audience what is going on: Imagination! Accusation! Betrayal! And a hard-boiled egg! (Okay, I made that last bit up.)

Distressing how aesthetic war tends to be in the movies…

 Also, I honestly don’t see why people keep praising Keira Knightley’s performance in this film so much. I liked her Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, but there’s nothing much in her Cecelia Tallis that we haven’t seen before. There’s stuck-up Keira, passionate Keira, angry Keira and languishing Keira, and that’s about it. Frankly, I thought her performance was fairly similar to Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films – not one of the Top 10 performances in movie history, in my opinion.

All in all, much of the first third of the film didn’t work that well for me. It takes a special skill in an actor to pull off “upper class” without falling into a caricature of the “upper class twit” worthy of school theatre and Monty Python. Many of those ageing RSC actors can do it, but in Atonement my main thought was, “If that’s what the British upper class is like, then the masses would have chopped off their heads hundreds of years ago… or otherwise they deserve them!” Every actor seems intent on showing the audience, “Class snobbery is wrong! These people are hateful, hateful idiots!” Which, frankly, I don’t need spelled out in ten-foot letters underlined three times.

However, the film gets a number of things very right. Many of the wartime scenes, especially the already famous long tracking shot along the beach, are quite stunning. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of these scenes that is miles removed from the literal-mindedness of the beginning and ending. The same goes for the scenes in hospital which do not flinch away from the horrible wounds of the soldiers coming home from France. While the cinematography is beautiful, it still gets across the ugliness of war in a few very effective shots.

Still, while there were things to admire, I have to wonder in the end: is such an Easy Reader version of Ian McEwan’s intricate, beautiful novel really necessary? And is it enough to be able to say, “Well, they didn’t screw it up too badly… They did quite okay”? And why, oh why, are so many reviewers infatuated with Keira Knightley?

P.S.: If my suspicion is correct, merely mentioning Keira Knightley in this blog entry should get me lots of hits.

P.P.S.: Sad, innit?

Going… going… gone!

First of all, my apologies for not updating my blog for the last two days. Things at the office and at home have been very busy, but from now on I should be able to update (practically) every day for the next two weeks. Promise!

And there’s enough to blog about, mainly the last film I watched at the cinema. Who’d have thought that Ben Affleck is so good at dealing with actors, especially after he didn’t exactly prove himself to be his generation’s De Niro? (Shades of Sophia Coppola, mayhaps…?) Gone Baby Gone is an accomplished first movie, with a brilliant cast and a wonderful set of moral grey areas to ponder for days after leaving the cinema.

Nah… still gone

For the record, I disliked Mystic River (which is also an adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just like Gone Baby Gone) intensely. I felt that Eastwood’s film at best paid lip service to the fact that many of its protagonist did pretty horrible things, but secretly it felt like the movie was condoning especially Sean Penn’s actions: after all, Tim Robbins’ character has been permanently broken by what happened to him when he was a kid, so a bullet to the head is in effect a mercy killing, even if done for the wrong reasons, right? Several people disagree with me on that reading, but I can’t shake it.

Gone Baby Gone is clearly by the same writer, and it shares many of the same concerns, but it’s more honest in addressing the moral dilemmas its characters are in. Many of the people involved try to do the right thing – but there is no right thing, so they try as hard as they can to go for the lesser of several evils. And the film doesn’t judge, which is quite amazing considering the story that it tells and the environment it’s set in. The Bostonian “white trash” isn’t looked down at or pitied as much as it is simply observed, just like the main character Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) doesn’t judge but simply tries to do what is right himself.

Casey Affleck is almost as brilliant as he was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was a bit irritated at the voiceover he had at the beginning of the film, because his voice is very characteristic and very specific. Its scratchy, somewhat adolescent quality (“You want fries with that?” – yup, that sort of voice) fit Robert Ford brilliantly, but I associated it with the character, not the actor. As soon as we actually saw Affleck, I was okay with it, though. It’s fascinating to watch his fundamentally decent character trying to figure out what the right thing is. When late in the film he kills a reprehensible character who has done an utterly evil thing, he doesn’t feel good or righteous, as would usually be the case in Hollywood films.

The rest of the cast is as fascinating. Much of the time you forget that you’re watching actors, as there’s something almost documentary about the presentation of the characters. Michelle Monaghan, whom I’d never noticed as much of an actress, makes her character into more of a Girl Friday/girlfriend type; Amy Madigan is as real as always; Morgan Freeman is remarkably short on Morgan Freeman-ness (Freemanity?), his usual, very pleasant style of (non-)acting; and Ed Harris seems to have swallowed Dennis Hopper whole, which is very disconcerting.

However, Gone Baby Gone may be a riveting film, but it’s not the most enjoyable film you could imagine. It’s less ponderous and heavy than Mystic River, but it leaves you with a very ambivalent ending, where those guilty before the law may be punished – but what is legal and what is right in this film diverges quite frighteningly. And chances are that the film will gnaw at your mind for a long time.

Chocolate-covered hobbits do Bollywood

I used to be a big Tim Burton fan. I greatly enjoyed his dark romanticism of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Batman Returns is probably my favourite Batman film. (Batman Begins does better action, but it lacks the inventiveness and the compelling relationships between characters such as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Michael Caine’s Alfred rules, though.) And even if Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick, it still oozed Burtonesque style from every semi-putrescent orifice. It had the Tim Burton soul.

Then came Mars Attacks!, a nice half-hour comedy stuck in a two-hour movie, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – a film that looked gorgeous (I never knew there were so many colours in grey before that movie) but had a meanness that hadn’t been in the previous films. The less said about Burton’s Planet of the Apes, the better. And Big Fish, even though lots of people liked it, always struck me as a smug, self-satisfied piece of schmaltz. It sides unequivocally with a self-infatuated, selfish boor who needs to stand at the centre of attention. (I very much saw where Billy Crudup’s character was coming from… Personally I would have strangled Daddy Storyteller in his sleep halfway through my childhood if I was him.) When I first saw the trailers for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was suspicious. Actually, no. I was turned off. I thought they looked loud, crude, tacky and tasteless. None of that weirdo “I’m a goth, please give me a hug” sweetness of the early films. In spite of liking Roald Dahl, I gave Charlie a wide berth.

Wonka by name, Wonka by nature

Until they showed it on television last week. We watched it, expecting very little… but roughly five minutes into the film we both had silly grins on our faces. From the first scene, the snow swirling around the Warner Brothers logo and the strains of Danny Elfman’s orchestral score, it felt like the Tim Burton I’d come to love. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is by no means perfect, and there are moments that are too shrill for their own good. It’s also somewhat let down by an overly sentimental, almost Disney-ish streak of “Family matters”. But on the whole it gets the balance between quirkiness, whimsy and sentiment just right, helped along by the touching earnestness of the title character and an almost surreal, dark streak that comes from Willy Wonka, arguably one of Burton’s most troubled characters yet, and the Oompa Loompas.

Based on this movie, I can say that I’m again looking forward to the next film by Tim Burton for the first time in years.

He say you Brade Runner!

When I was a teenager, I loved Blade Runner. I loved the atmosphere, the plot, the characters, the lines.

I am still very fond of the film, but after watching the Final Cut (which came out recently) yesterday, I am sorry to say that the original magic isn’t there any more. The film still looks absolutely gorgeous, even more so on the new DVD release, which almost makes you wonder what all the fuss about BluRay or HD-DVD is about if DVDs can look this stunning. The atmosphere is still there. But somehow I can no longer get into the faux-noirish plot and characters. Deckard is a dick, but not a very complex one; Rachael is, well, Sean Young, not the most exciting of actresses at the best of times; and most of the characters, including the replicants, remain one-dimensional. Much of what I originally found intriguing and evocative now strikes me as a tad too facile: “Ooh, we’re being vague here!”

Sushi, that’s what my wife used to call me. Cold fish.

This probably sounds worse than it ought to, because as I said, I used to love the film, so it came as a bit of a shock to find that my feelings had changed. Nevertheless – the film still looks amazing. Judging from the DVD quality, chances are it never looked better. And somehow the coherence of the visual design even makes the ’80s booboos work: Pris’ and Rachael’s hair, the shoulder pads, the neon. Although, after first seeing the film in the late ’80s or early ’90s, the intro sequence with its caption “Los Angeles, 2019” made me think that we’re probably still not much closer to flying cars than we were back then. Well, we’ll see in twelve years or so…

What was fun, though: spotting the actors from series I’ve been watching since. I’d never realised that I’d first seen Brenda’s mom wearing some artificial snake scales, a transparent raincoat and very little else. (Helloooo, Mrs. Chenowith!) And for some odd reason, I’ve only seen William Sanderson in parts where his first name consisted of double initials: E.B. Farnum, J.F. Sebastian. (Perhaps he should next try his hand at P.T. Barnum.) Finally, even though I know that Gaff is played by Edward James Olmos, but apart from the pock marks I simply don’t see it – Gaff looks and sounds so much creepier than Admiral Adama. If President Roslin ever gets hold of a Blade Runner video (probably with the corners cut off), she’ll get quite a shock…

Lookin’ good… but does it add up to anything?

For me, Michael Winterbottom is rather hit-and-miss. I usually like the atmosphere of his films, but at the same time they tend to leave me somewhat cold. Intellectually and aesthetically I appreciate them, but I rarely care.

Tim Robbins in search of a script that makes more sense

Code 46, his foray into near-future SF (sci-fi, that is, not San Francisco), had exactly the same effect on me. It’s beautifully shot, its digital imagery more evocative than any version of the future I’ve seen since Blade Runner – more so because the futuristic effect is subtle. Winterbottom’s future is our present, just more so.

But this is a film that struggles to be a mood piece, or perhaps video art. I enjoyed looking at it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it. Certainly my difficulty following the plot largely stemmed from the bad mix that left half the lines unintelligible, which wasn’t helped by the fact that in the near future, apparently everyone speaks English mixed with Spanish and other languages. But if the plot is as simple as I think it is (and the reviews I’ve read since watching the film seem to support that theory), then it doesn’t hold up very well, really. Tim Robbins’ investigator falls hard for the once more waif-like Samantha Morton who is suspected of stealing genetic passports that allow people to travel to places that would otherwise be off-limit to them. It turns out that she’s cloned from his mother’s genetic material, so their relationship is a criminal offense. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Trés artistique, enh?

I usually like elliptic films – I like not being led by the hand, whether by movies or by books. But sometimes ellipticness seems to be a cheap excuse for vague writing, directing and acting. The film intrigues intermittently, but it rarely follows up on the intriguing bits: for instance, William Geld, Robbins’ character, has his memory of  Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) erased at the end so he won’t resume the genetically dangerous relationship. He goes home to his child and his wife who knows of the affair but cannot ever tell. There’s an interesting story in that. Unfortunately, the film focuses on William and Maria but never makes their attraction credible. We know that they have feelings for one another because of how they act, yet we never feel the emotions. Their love or passion or horniness or whatever it is, it remains an idea.

And frankly, I am getting somewhat annoyed with Samantha Morton’s acting, or perhaps rather with the characters she’s offered. She has this patented wild-child thing going that makes her come across as slightly funny in the head, or as someone who doesn’t do social conventions at all. But the longer the more it feels like an affectation, like a neo-punk letting us know very clearly how different she is. I could imagine that this is what attracts a number of indie directors to her, but it’s becoming tiring.

Then again, I shouldn’t forget that she was also in this:

P.S.: Code 46 was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote Millions. I guess I may prefer his children’s books to his adult movie writing. The Claim, which he also did with Winterbottom, shares this film’s vagueness and coldness.

The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.

 Not.

The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.

Burial blues

I’ve had the DVD of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for over a year now, but we finally got around to watching it yesterday evening only. What a weird film! I think you can clearly see the ways in which it’s related to Guillermo Arriaga’s other scripts Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. There’s the playing with chronology; there’s the themes of migration and alienation; there’s the transnational cast of characters.

Melquiades Estrada, three burials earlier

In terms of tone, though, there’s a difference. Iñárritu’s films may be highly constructed and symbolic, but in terms of the acting they are firmly grounded in naturalism. Tommy Lee Jones’ first cinematic film, on the other hand, isn’t. I’m not quite sure what it is grounded in – theatricality, perhaps? Brechtian V-effect? Some of the acting feels more like the actors are wearing an emblematic mask: I am sad and distraught, I am bored, I am frustrated. The first half hour of the film, Tommy Lee Jones’ character looks like he’s about to burst into tears – and it doesn’t change.

The weird, unsettling thing is, though, that once you’ve eased into the film’s style, it’s oddly compelling. We’re so used to naturalism and, even more, Hollywood’s mock-naturalism that we expect filmic reality to have a certain style. When we get a film that visually seems to be realistic but the acting is stylised, it’s disorienting. My first thought was: the acting in this film is really, really bad. My third or fourth thought was: there’s something to it. And by the end of the film I’d fully accepted the style.

It’s also a beautiful film to look at, and an intricately written one. There are elements that are too broad, perhaps, such as all the Mexican characters being portrayed as proto-Communists willing to share any- and everything. (“Mi caballo es su caballo”, that sort of thing.) Some of the satire is heavy-handed. But then there are scenes that develop in strange, unexpected ways: the old blind man who asks the protagonists, quite reasonably, to shoot him (see the video clip above). The Mexican cowboys sitting out in the wilderness, watching American soaps. The ways in which Jones’ character deals with Melquiades’ increasing putrefaction. And the ending, which stops just at the right moment.

But, man, what a weird film!

All this, and smiles too

This’ll be a short one – it’s for the film buffs reading this who don’t frequent Ain’t It Cool News. I think it’s one of the coolest teaser posters in a long, long time.

Ha, ha, hee, hee, ha, ha!

There’s also a description of the first five minutes of the movie online, available here. I can admit that the Chris Nolan geek in me gets all excited at this.

Godfather of Funk

Last night we watched The Godfather Part III, for completeness’ sake. When I first watched it, I’d been prepared for something abysmal, so I ended up thinking it wasn’t very good but neither was it that bad. Rewatching it, though, I hardly could believe that it was made by the same people who’d worked on the first two Godfather movies.

Enough has been said about Sophia Coppola’s horrible acting in the film, and it’s a good thing that she’s decided to continue her movie work on the other side of the camera. What struck me this second time was how un-cinematic the film is. Both The Godfather and its first sequel are beautiful films to behold. They have an “Old Masters” glow to them. They look like they come from Hollywood’s glory days.

The Godfather 3, by comparison, looks dowdy. They’ve got some nice sets (or they were allowed to film in gorgeous interiors) – but they’re all presented very flatly, and this flatness is heightened by the often pedestrian editing. Granted, there are scenes that look good and that are edited well, but then there are so many others (especially in the half of the film before they go to Sicily) that feel like ’80s television. Especially dialogues are edited with no feel for tension or flow: character A has a line, finishes it, cut to character B doing his or her sub-standard line, cut to character A again. Yup. Bad television editing.

Checking out IMDB, I find it amazing that the film was nominated at the Academy Awards for its cinematography and editing, and I can only believe that the nominations were the Academy’s form of commiserating what had happened to the venerable series and the equally venerable craftsmen working on it.

But I have to wonder: what happened to the Francis Ford Coppola who directed the first two Godfather movies? Or Apocalypse Now? Or The Conversation, a masterfully told tale of paranoia?

P.S.: I don’t get the praises and nominations for the writing either. If the previous Godfather movies were Shakespearean, this one was largely day-time soap… and its attempts at political intrigue were muddled, implying larger schemes but ultimately feeling like so much sound and fury signifying nothing.

Twins 2: Starring Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer ’till I start going on at great length about the films that didn’t click for me. You have my sympathy, though; it can’t be easy waiting even longer for something that highly anticipated… (On a related note: Amazon recently sent off my copy of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, according to the Moore-man “not my best comic ever, not the best comic ever, but the best thing ever. Better than the Roman civilisation, penicillin, […] the human nervous system. Better than creation. Better than the big bang. It’s quite good.” Sounds like something to look forward to.)

Anyway, the reason for today’s delay is this:

(Note: I’m afraid the YouTube video is in Spanish – here’s a link to the English video.)

While it’s probably a bit too precious for its own good, it’s still an amazingly well done advert. But what really throws me every time I see (and hear) Martin Scorsese is just how much he looks and sounds like an Italian-American, less neurotic though just as fidgety Woody Allen. And they both love New York.

Hmm.

Twins, separated at birth? Or are they actually the same person – i.e. Woody had better acting skills than we’d thought, and he’s been working on his Brooklyn accent? My guess is that this is just another one of those Hollywood mysteries that will never be solved. Like Ben Affleck’s success. Or William Shatner’s hair.

Spooky, huh?