Archive for December 2007

The Orphanage

December 28, 2007

It’s obvious that The Orphanage, a new Spanish supernatural drama being groomed for Oscar attention, is meant to be more than a scare flick. It’s meant to be a meditation on loss and grief (which doesn’t exactly make it the first ghost story ever to address those themes, but whatever). Was it also meant to be so sedate and uninvolving? The Orphanage is confidently pieced together by first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona, a protege of the successful Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), who produced the film. It goes for dread over gore (with one exception), spooky sounds over cheap shocks (same exception). In theory I’m all for it. In practice it lost me.

Most of the movie’s charge comes from Belén Rueda as Laura, who was an orphan as a girl and now, at age 37, wants to re-open her old orphanage for disabled kids. Laura’s son Simón (Roger Princép) is adopted and HIV-positive — you know, just in case we wouldn’t feel sorry enough for him. Designing a supernatural tale around children is by no means new, but I confess some weariness with it. Rueda, however, roots the movie in the fierce reality of a woman struggling to keep her son from disappearing into an imaginary world. Simón sees ghosts — the ghosts of the orphan kids Laura grew up with. One of them is disfigured, his face hidden behind a burlap sack. This allows for a few fleeting creepy moments, though not enough to sustain the film.

Sergio G. Sanchéz’ script piles on the convolutions. Why are the orphans dead? Well, that has something to do with the burlap kid, whose mother …. Oh, skip it. Geraldine Chaplin is brought in as a psychic, who wanders around the orphanage while being filmed in night vision. There’s a laughably abrupt death-by-bus, leading to a shock image of the victim’s jaw bloodily unhinged; too bad we’ve just seen Laura’s husband trying to give the victim mouth-to-mouth resuscitation seconds earlier.

The Orphanage turns vaguely depressing, a fable in which the bereaved longs for death in order to join lost ones forever. Unfortunately, the script lacks the artistry necessary to marry horror and drama, and Bayona is no del Toro; the movie has no wildness, no beauty. It’s a rather dreary experience, and eventually even Belén Rueda’s performance begins to seem shrill in relation to the narrative dead zone around her. And the movie uses damaged kids a little too cavalierly, employing them for eerie pathos without bothering to find out much about them. (Apparently, no one cared enough to look into the orphans’ deaths; it’s as if the film didn’t care either.)

There’s promise here, if Bayona finds a sharper (or more poetic) screenplay next time. Bayona has a knack for the usual spook tactics, though not much that horror fans haven’t seen before. To craft a truly unsettling ghost story with staying power, a director needs to be a little crazy — needs to understand in his or her bones why kids are afraid to go down to the basement or have their feet sticking out of bed. Bayona has a mechanical understanding of those things, but on the evidence here, he doesn’t feel them enough to make us feel them too.

There Will Be Blood

December 26, 2007

As someone who, in the past, has felt that the epic ambition of the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten the better of him, I was prepared to cringe throughout his latest saga, the much-heralded There Will Be Blood. But this job is full of surprises, and so, it turns out, is Anderson. With any luck, this may be the movie that turns it around for the formerly irrepressible and derivative director, with his past slavish tips of the hat to Altman and Scorsese and every other major director of the ‘70s. Whatever else it is or isn’t, There Will Be Blood is an original, and a major, confident step forward. Maybe Anderson needed to get movies like Boogie Nights and Magnolia (I’m aware those films have their passionate fans) out of his system before he could do pure work like this.

For a long stretch at the beginning, there’s no dialogue at all as the tragic protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) digs for silver and then for oil. The sequences have the bold simplicity of silent filmmaking (although Jonny Greenwood’s cacophonous score is a bit too jarring in spots). Plainview is a man of few words, except when he’s trying to get California rubes to sell their land so he can drill on it. Day-Lewis has adopted the gruff, elongated vowels of John Huston, with maybe a hint of Nixon. He squints his eyes, and his mouth is hidden by a mustache, yet this could be his most expressive performance since My Left Foot. Plainview feels in every way like a turn-of-the-century man (the movie starts in 1898) driven to the far edges of callousness by the pursuit of the American dream.

For much of the film, Plainview’s nemesis is Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a baby-faced country preacher who claims to be able to drive demons (such as the demon of arthritis) out of his congregation. Plainview’s expression when he drops in on Eli’s sermon conveys a grudging regard for a fellow charlatan. Later on, when Plainview must kneel and denounce himself before God (and before Eli’s church) in order to secure a crucial pipeline, Dano and Day-Lewis turn the scene into a classic duet of loathing. Forced to own up to abandoning his adopted young son after a drilling mishap that deafened the boy, Plainview burns through his shame into a bitter gaiety, parodying the spiritual revelation he’s supposed to be having. Capitalism versus faith, with flim-flammery on both sides, becomes the central conflict in There Will Be Blood.

There’s no conflict in Plainview, though. Photographed in front of one gorgeous landscape after another, he can see them only as a help or a hindrance to his goal. This epic has been constructed around a hollow man, though Day-Lewis infuses him with enough flashes of self-awareness to fill in the blanks. Anderson has taken Upton Sinclair’s energetic, wide-ranging novel Oil! and turned it into a meditation on a monster. Throughout the generous length of the film, Plainview falls away from redemption little by little, until finally, in his vast home containing its own bowling alley, he’s twisted and hunched over like a drunken Richard III. The degenerative portrait is complete. “I am the third revelation!” bellows Plainview; he’s either blaspheming or finally telling the truth.

Anderson has learned patience; he’s also learned how to make a movie flow without depending too heavily on popular songs (and none of his usual stable of performers are in his corner here, either). He’s a born-again poet, telling a story straight, with minimal ornamentation and occasional bursts of strangeness only when needed. In Anderson’s debut Hard Eight, he focused on one man, Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney, and his relationship with a younger gambler (John C. Reilly). There Will Be Blood continues Anderson’s preoccupation with corrupt father figures while returning him to what, it turns out, he does best. Anderson may have had fun making panoramic group portraits like Magnolia, but when he calms down and drills into one subject, rather than flitting from character to character like an overcaffeinated butler at a dinner party, he can dig deep and strike oil.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

December 21, 2007

To say that the splatter-goth musical Sweeney Todd is an ideal match for Tim Burton’s manic-depressive sensibility would be to make the understatement of the movie year. In a way, this director’s entire darkly gaudy career has been working up to an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s nastily sportive Broadway hit. (The material has been around since the 1840s, and a Sweeney Todd movie with Tod Slaughter predated Sondheim’s work by 43 years.) As in his other goth-horror Johnny Depp vehicle Sleepy Hollow, Burton drains the screen of all color except blood red. The effect in both films is like Nosferatu produced by Hammer, and someday they will make a dazzling creature double feature — except that in Sleepy Hollow Depp pursues the creature, and here he is one.

His hair teased into a mad-scientist Beethoven helmet with a shock of white, Depp’s Sweeney Todd enters the picture seething with contempt and fury, and he almost never lets up. Character subtlety has never been Burton’s strong point; fortunately, the material doesn’t demand it. It’s a gory cartoon with operatic flourishes and a lineage that includes Titus Andronicus, EC Comics, and Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers. It’s a revenge play, with Sweeney plotting to give very close shaves to the men who took his wife and daughter away and locked him up, while Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett, who bakes meat pies, proposes a pragmatic way to dispose of the bodies.

Bonham Carter and Depp, surly goth twins at the fetid prom of London, approach Sweeney Todd as the live-action sequel to their previous film for Burton, Corpse Bride. Depp stands stock still, gnashing his rotted teeth (at times he resembles Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck in Burton’s Batman Returns), while Bonham Carter whirls around plotting and fantasizing about the picnic-filled marriage she and Sweeney will have. They’re in decent voice, though Sondheim’s silverstreak lyrics are so densely packed they’re difficult for these lesser-trained singers to navigate. Other actors — like Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as Turpin’s obsequious henchman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the boastful scam artist Pirelli — get easier songs and more room to breathe and show off their pipes.

The pumping, hissing blood is, as Burton hoped, more cathartic than disgusting. It’s theatrical blood, Hammer blood, and for the sexless Sweeney these gushers are the only hot release he can have. Eros, meet Thanatos. Romance swirls all around Sweeney — Turpin’s lust for Sweeney’s teenage daughter Johanna, whom he has adopted as his “ward”; a young sailor yearning for Johanna; Mrs. Lovett’s unrequited (and hardly noticed) love for Sweeney — but all he’s interested in is the dark romance of vengeance. (He refers to his silver razors as his friends.) Sweeney Todd, in whatever incarnation, has been one of the oddest stories ever to capture the mass public fancy, and Burton and odd go together like cake and ice cream. He’s never been afraid of the grand gesture (or the Grand Guignol gesture); there’s a long, computer-enhanced pullback from Sweeney brandishing his razor through the towers and tenements of London, and it’s a breathtaker, a tour through a macabre toybox.

It’s a powerfully weird movie for a studio to position as its big holiday release. But it fulfills a promise I haven’t felt Burton has delivered on before, not this completely. He needs a simple story, and big, flamboyant moments to offset the wretched pinpricks of despair, and loud music, and a vehicle that finds both poetry and humor in horror, and Johnny Depp. Well, Burton’s checklist is full this time. Sweeney Todd, which went before cameras last February, was Burton’s late Christmas gift to himself, and now it’s his Christmas gift to those of us who’ve been his loyal fans for the last twenty years. This black cauldron of a film, with its spider-blood visual scheme, may be the purest example of imagemaking the movies have given us in far too long.

The Kite Runner

December 14, 2007

About half an hour into The Kite Runner, it comes — a terrific battle of kites in the skies of Kabul, swooping at each other like fighter jets, snipping one another’s strings as the gathered crowds bellow with excitement. Everywhere you look, kids are on rooftops or in the streets, in pairs, one holding the spool, the other manipulating the kite like an angler trying to land a big, flapping fish. It’s a truly magical sequence. Not long after that, one of the boys is cornered in an alley and raped. So much for magic. The Kite Runner, based on Khaled Hosseini’s book-discussion-group phenomenon, is a thin and melodramatic epic whose emotional charge derives almost entirely from the performance of Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, who plays the boy in peril, Hassan.

Hassan works as a servant to young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi), whose father, known only to us as Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), has retained Hassan’s father’s services also. The boys are close friends, moving in tandem through the streets of Kabul circa 1978. Though Hassan is not particularly big, he protects Amir from bullies, including the trio who eventually assault Hassan. Too afraid to intervene, Amir hides and looks on, then runs away. Amir’s guilt is such that he can’t look at Hassan without being reminded of his own cowardice, so he does odd, cruel things to Hassan.

All of that isn’t bad, though indebted to films like Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants and Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields — ah, the torments of the higher-class weakling who lacks the stones to save his lower-class friend. But The Kite Runner is the story of how the grown Amir (Khalid Abdalla), now a successful writer in America, delves back into the lion’s den of Kabul under Taliban rule to rescue Hassan’s son from — you guessed it — the same sexual sadist who raped Hassan years before. Oh, it’s a tearjerker; the usual people who fall for this stuff will be crestfallen. I stopped believing in it soon after it became clear that Hassan, despite Mahmidzada’s brave and emotionally transparent peformance, is a plaster saint allowed no traces of complexity or even resentment at the friend who abandoned him.

Bargaining to take Hassan’s son Sohrab home to America, Amir is told to leave, whereupon he intones, “Not without Sohrab.” I hear a bit of Not Without My Daughter there — another well-meaning film that casts Arabs as brutal savages, except, of course, for the sensitive, intellectual ones. In short, the Westernized ones. The Kite Runner does romanticize pre-Soviet and pre-Taliban Kabul, but only as a larger metaphor for how people like Amir ran away from it — just like he ran from Hassan! — leaving it to the warriors and rapists. Amir is called back to Kabul as a chance “to be good again” — i.e., to redeem his manhood and preserve what little innocence is left in Kabul.

Along the way, there’s a wedding and a funeral, within the same five minutes of screen time. There’s something here to jerk everyone’s tears, except those of us who’ve seen it before in other variations. As adapted by director Marc Forster and scripter David Benioff, The Kite Runner comes off as the simplistic Oprah-approved gush it always was, and heroic wish fulfillment for a Kabul-born author who’s made millions off of the pain of his countrymen. (Khaled Hosseini left Kabul with his family before any of the bad stuff went down.) What’s worse, the two boy actors were forced to flee Afghanistan for fear of reprisals over the rape scene; Paramount Vantage, the film’s distributor, got to play Amir and rescue the boys from the savages. Hollywood — and perhaps the Oscars too, I fear — will grab at any chance to “be good again.”

Atonement

December 7, 2007

A bizarre coincidence: Two of the year-end award-chasing films — The Kite Runner and Atonement — are epics of shame. They are based on novels written in separate years, set in different countries, yet they both center on an act of child rape and how a young protagonist responds to the act and, in adulthood, strains to redeem disastrous childhood lies. Atonement at least does not, unlike The Kite Runner, feature a Hollywood showdown based on a laughable coincidence; it ends on a dramatically ambiguous note, showing us the happy ending we want right after refuting it. Still, it’s a handsomely assembled bore, with far too much noble English repression.

Briony (Saiorse Ronan), an unpleasant little 13-year-old fabulist, spots her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) jumping into a fountain and emerging with her underthings clinging, while the housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy) stands nearby. An odd occurrence from Briony’s point of view, though her assumption of naughtiness between the two isn’t entirely unfounded — they just haven’t gotten around to consummating their guarded mutual attraction yet. Still, the episode is on Briony’s mind when her cousin Lola is assaulted by a man Briony takes to be Robbie. He is arrested, and later given a choice between jail and the Army. Robbie chooses a soldier’s uniform over a prisoner’s, but it’s bad timing: England has entered World War II, and when we see Robbie again it’s during the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Joe Wright, who previously directed Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, gives us a lengthy tracking shot of the chaos on the Dunkirk beaches. It’s full of incident, and it must’ve been a nightmare to organize and shoot, but it goes on just long enough to start selling its Oscar-vamping epicness. (A similar sequence in Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall got in and out in half the time, with judiciously chosen images of pain and death.) The sisters Cecelia and Briony have both gone into nursing, though Briony (played in late teens by Romola Garai) is driven by an overwhelming desire to make up for what she did to Cecelia and Robbie. There’s the suggestion that part of her wanted Robbie banished because she herself had a schoolgirl crush on him.

Atonement builds itself on a string of stupid actions, such as Robbie’s typing a raunchy note to Cecelia to amuse himself, then handwriting a more genteel note, but accidentally delivering the wrong one to Briony, who of course opens it. It’s the only epic I can think of that blossoms out of the notorious slang word for female genitalia (which we see typed out thunderously across the screen). Reduced that way, it sounds kind of silly, and it is kind of silly. Had Robbie never typed those three consonants and a vowel, he (and we) would never have endured the horrors of Dunkirk. That’s just about the last word in English repression.

If we don’t buy into the conflict, we can’t buy into what the actors are doing — one scene in particular, a reunion between Briony and the two lovers, is played more falsely than it should be, even if the scene’s falseness is intentional. Daniel Mays comes through as Robbie’s no-nonsense Army companion, and Vanessa Redgrave turns up at the end as the elderly Briony, her voice and ironic smile carrying far more weight than anything else in the film. Atonement may be worth the sit just to hear Redgrave pronouncing “vascular dementia” — amused by the irony of a disease that will rob her of her words. You can have the show-offy tracking shot and the self-conscious romantic-epic touches (Cecelia on a bus with Robbie chasing after her is particularly shabby) — I’d rather watch two hours of Vanessa Redgrave telling this story, her inflections bringing it to life where Joe Wright fails.

Juno

December 5, 2007

It’s hard to tell what kind of actress Ellen Page will be in ten or twenty years (she’s twenty now), because she plays teenage girls to witty perfection. She was the best reason to sit through the self-consciously “provocative” Hard Candy, and in Juno, with the help of a much better script, she creates a smart and idiosyncratic 16-year-old and effortlessly carries the movie. Not that the movie is heavy lifting; it trades in the sort of stylized quirk probably inaugurated by Wes Anderson and Rushmore, it’s loaded — borderline overloaded — with twee little acoustic songs with clever lyrics, and its style and content will mark it among cynics as Napoleon Dynamite meets Knocked Up. Still, Page reigns over the movie, joined by a solid, eclectic cast who are allowed to be as individualized as she is.

Juno (Page) gets pregnant. The father is Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, adding yet another withdrawn dork to his portfolio after Arrested Development and Superbad), who runs track for the school. Juno’s dad (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom (Allison Janney) are a bit nonplussed by the news, but not outraged or punitive, a big relief for Juno and for us. Juno considers abortion, then decides to carry the baby to term and give it to suburban adoptive parents Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner).

There are no villains in Juno. Even Mark, whose immaturity leads him into questionable areas, is played by Bateman as an essentially okay guy who’s in over his head and sorely misses the old days, when he was in a band (he now composes commercial jingles). Mark and Vanessa, unhappy in their separate ways, are the movie’s most interesting characters. For her part, Garner, a recent mom in real life, manages to give every line and gesture a subtext of sadness and frustration without turning Vanessa into a cartoon wannabe-mommy. This couple, we feel, used to have more things in common, but their mid-thirties pulled her deeper into maternal longings and him further into nostalgia.

The first produced script by 29-year-old Diablo Cody, who drops references to Herschell Gordon Lewis and Mott the Hoople as if she were twenty years older, Juno is peppered with sharp, quotable dialogue. Some will say real people don’t talk like that — aren’t so quick with witticisms — but Juno is the narrator, so I agreed to accept the badinage as Juno’s way of making her story funny and interesting. Jason Reitman, who directed the amusingly savvy Thank You for Smoking two years ago, continues to leave his out-of-it dad Ivan in the dust. Reitman’s work here is unpretentious and charming, though, as I said, a bit too dependent on coffee-house noodling on the soundtrack. (Juno worships Iggy Pop, but the movie’s budget probably only allowed for Kimya Dawson and Antsy Pants.)

I liked Juno, so I liked the movie. Such touches as Juno talking into her hamburger phone to her equally witty cheerleader friend (Olivia Thirlby), or the fact that Reitman gets away with showing a bloody scene from The Wizard of Gore in a PG-13 film, add to the general endearing texture. Juno sidesteps being an ABC Afterschool Special — or, for that matter, a brief for pro-life or pro-choice — and makes its characters stubbornly human, always tinkering or doing things that suggest a life outside the movie. Jason Reitman enjoys people, and seems to want to make comedies about how they are. As for Ellen Page, time will tell what age and experience will bring to her work; it’ll be fun to follow her and find out.


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