Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cloverfield

With this tape, we are so gonna win $10,000

Just when you thought that Hollywood had run out of ways to tell the "Big Monster Destroys Big City" formula, there comes "Cloverfield," a Godzilla-esque flick that married the "Blair Witch Project" and spawned a very frightening, hyperactive child." Told completely from the point of view of a guy wielding a digital video camera with seemingly endless battery life, "Cloverfield" manages to play on the senses like a ride on a very old, rickety roller coaster that also has the ability to throw bowling balls at your head. Wait... that almost sounded like a bad thing. Well, it's not. "Cloverfield" is surprisingly effective.

The movie starts with "standard use" camcorder stuff, at a going away party for a young man named Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who has landed a new job in Japan. His friend Hud (T.J. Miller) is using the camera to tape testimonials, spy on people's love life drama, and other ultimately meaningless, character-building tidbits that set the stage for a "you think you've got problems now" scenario when things start exploding in midtown Manhattan, and the head of the Statue of Liberty goes rolling down the street. At this point, Hud becomes something of an amateur documentary maker and he even manages to add a bit of comedy relief to what would otherwise be a hopelessly horrific situation. There is a giant creature of sorts laying waste to every skyscraper in its path. We don't know, at least initially, what it looks like and this amps up the fright factor a great deal.

The monster's place of origin is not revealed to us either, naturally, but Hud speculates that it could have come out of the ocean or from another planet. All we do know is it is impervious to modern military weaponry, and there are even little parasites on it (that are about the size of a compact car, which should provide proper perspective) that look like what would happen if Godzilla had visited a prostitute on the seedier side of town.

There is a lot of frightening imagery in "Cloverfield." Skyscrapers coming down in massive clouds of dust evoke memories of 9/11. Images of tanks firing at the monster felt startlingly real. The incinerated New York skyline, seen only in glimpses here and there had a rather haunting quality. And when our heroes go into a tilting building to rescue one of their friends, we feel as exhausted as they do when they climb up nearly 60 floors of stairs.

The device of filming it with such an "amateur" technique, provided it doesn't nauseate you, has a way of bringing the viewer directly into the story and behind the heels of everyone else running for their lives in a panic. Director Matt Reeves showed great instinct and restraint here by choosing to keep the monster off-camera for most of the film, not only because it adhered to the film's logic, but because it is a time-tested horror device that the less we see of a baddie, the more scared we are. There is no way the film would have been effective at generating scares if it had been filmed in sleek, "steady cam" style. The slightly grainy quality of the film has a way of unsettling us further, and it allows our imaginations to fill in details lost in the murk. Because we aren't provided with any information that our main characters haven't been, we are simply witness to, and members of, the surrounding pandemonium. Perhaps the most fright-inducing aspect of "Cloverfield" was the sound, which compensated for the visual jogs. This is a film that demands viewing in a movie theater or a decent home theater with the volume turned way up.

Granted, there were logistical questions I wanted to ask when the lights thankfully came back on during the closing credits, but I blocked them out. Who could possibly try to make sense of such a thing, anyway? "Cloverfield" was a well-made, highly entertaining film that for its short 84-minute duration removed me from my seat and planted me into that hellish nightmare version of Manhattan. My only advice would be to sit several rows back, particularly if you want to avoid a case of stomach-churning vertigo.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

Friday, January 18, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There will be blood and madness...

This is a movie without sympathy. One without pity. It features a man who is a Howard Hughes without a conscience, a Citizen Kane dipped in crude, without the concept of regret. It is a movie that is complex in its simplicity, fixed into a rigid frame as the ultimate portrait of greed and madness. And it is either in spite of or because of all of these things that Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" is a great film.

The year is 1898. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) starts with little, in both the means and the words department, as he slogs away beneath the desolate, barren Texas landscapes foraging silver in the hopes of building a fortune. He's not the enthusiastic prospector with naive optimism glinting in his eyes. He is silent and dogged in his determination. He breaks his leg and claws his way out of the desert to cash in his claim. When he eventually strikes oil, he doesn't even register surprise, but instead steps comfortably up to a future of immense wealth and power, almost as if he were entitled to it. He even inherits the baby of a fallen worker and raises him as his own son, using the child as a prop to give an innocent face to his drilling operation, swaying landholders to sell him leases to drill on their property by saying that he's a simple family man. The ploy works.

Plainview's fate turns in a new direction when he's approached by a young man named Paul Sunday, who for a price gives him the location of a vast ocean of oil. It's beneath the Sunday family ranch. Plainview visits the ranch and before long installs himself and his derricks in the town of Little Boston, where the citizens are under the sway of Plainview's vision of shared wealth and prosperity, as well as that of the Sunday family's other son Eli (Paul Dano) who also appears to be the identical twin of Paul. Of course it's hard to tell whether this is actually the case because we never see the two brother's together. But Eli is a religious zealot who runs a small church of the fire and brimstone variety, and he quickly becomes the oil man's nemesis.

Plainview makes a lot of promises to the people of Little Boston, none of which he follows through on. It becomes quite clear that he is not a man who can be trusted. Much later in the film when he meets a man who claims to be his half-brother, he confides in him that he hates everyone, and reveals what we suspected all along: a complete dearth of humanity spiraling dangerously to a place of madness.

Daniel Day-Lewis continues to be the most captivating actor on the screen today, disappearing into his roles with such convincing ease that even in the scenes where there is no dialog (the first fifteen minutes are completely devoid of it), he manages to hold the audience in thrall. This is a role that is certain to garner him a very well-deserved Oscar. The narrative of "There Will Be Blood" is signature Paul Thomas Anderson in that it's long. Quite, actually. Also true to PTA's work, it is not boring. While there were perhaps a few elements of the third act that could have used a tightening of the screws, and there was not a sense even in the last minutes that the film was winding down (which gave it just the smallest smidge of tediousness), it is held in check by our wide-eyed fascination, watching Plainview devolve into an older, wealthy recluse, wandering through the empty halls of his mansion shooting his possessions and gulping an endless supply of whiskey. The ending is by all turns amusing, sad, insane, and abrupt. It is also appropriate for this character, who really deserved no better fate and actually got his wish--to become rich enough to separate himself from everyone.

This is a film that flourishes in its ability to escape convention and manages to do it with great style and taste. There is no love interest. There is no search for redemption or betterment. In its drab colorscape, it exhibits a very limited spectrum of human emotion, focusing on its unsavory underbelly. We are taken in by Plainview's self-assured charisma, and even as he reveals himself to be something of a monster, he's already gotten his hooks sunken into us and we can't look away.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A+

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Emo Todd

Although I can say that I've had a great time watching certain musicals, there is something about theater at large that I've always found to be unbearably pretentious. Gestures and facial expressions are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Simple messages and themes are often delivered cryptically and with too much fanfare, and there is always this unspoken rule that if you don't appreciate the show before you, you are a clod without culture. Well after trudging out of what is perhaps the bloodiest, most disgusting, and morally offensive musical in stage and cinematic history, I will happily don the title of Cultureless Clod, so long as I don't have to ever again see people chomping down on human flesh stuffed into meat pies.

Sweeney Todd is a grim endeavor to be sure. A revenge tragedy told on a most visceral level, it centers on a man, Benjamin Barker, whose sunny life as a husband, father, and barber was destroyed by a malicious judge (Alan Rickman) who lusted after Barker's wife. After being falsely imprisoned by the judge for fifteen years, during which Judge Turpin forced Barker's wife to poison herself with arsenic and then claimed their child for his own, Barker returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd to exact his revenge. He is helped in his dirty deeds by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of a pie shop strewn with moldy wares and cockroaches that boasts "the worst pies in London."

This is not a jolly old London, as fans of the stage musical or of this film already know. It is a sunless, poverty-stricken, sewer of humanity that likely haunted the worst nightmares of Charles Dickens. The production design by Dante Ferretti, who has spent a lot of time under the employ of many great directors (namely, Martin Scorsese), goes to great lengths to paint a portrait of dreariness that one can't help but admire for its thoroughness.

Of course, being a Tim Burton film, Sweeney Todd was sure to be a visual stunner. I can think of few filmmakers whose work plays on the most relentlessly surreal aspects of our sensibilities, and in Sweeney Todd he is at his most daring and avante garde. He painstakingly adheres to the spirit of the material and doesn't for one second let up as the blood flows and sprays in torrents, and the characters continue to achieve newer, more depraved levels of gruesome behavior. But herein lies the problem. Burton, per usual, with his concentrated focus on aesthetics, left little to no room for the heart to enter the picture. I felt no sympathy for Todd's seething moroseness, and what little I had for Mrs. Lovett was tossed into the meat grinder with the rest of the town's unsavory bits. I found myself sitting more in aghast than in admiration, and I was less than enticed by the musical selections whose occasional moments of cleverness ("For many a poor orphan lad, the first square meal he ever had, was a hot meat pie made out of his dad, from Sweeney Todd the Barber.") was overshadowed by saccharine ostentatious schmaltz.

Ultimately, Sweeney Todd left me floored, but not in a good way. Its audacity was alienating and often alarming, too much so for me to want to admire it up close. Watching it was like looking upon a piece of art that leaves one with only the ability to say: "Wonders of the human imagination will never cease" and then walk away with a sigh of relief, content never to glance upon it again.

This film is an experience to be savored by a very select crowd. If you are into self-indulgent, histrionic, caustic, pretentious, blood-drenched "high art" that can only be called "art" because it can't fit into any niche of normality, then Sweeney is your ticket to cinematic awe. For the rest of us, there is everything else.

Gouda's Final Grade: C-

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Juno

In a word, touching.

I can recall few movies where I liked every character so much that I found myself wishing that I really knew them. It's even more rare that I encounter dialog so quick and so endearing that I want to hug the people who are intelligent enough to utter it. This is particularly true of the title character, Juno MacGuff, played with such edgy brilliance by Ellen Page that I feel if she doesn't win the Oscar this year, it will be one of the great injustices in the Academy's history of handing out statues.

Juno is a wise-cracking old soul who at 16 decides to experiment with sex with her friend and bandmate, Pauly (Michael Cera). Two months and four days later (not that she's counting), she finds out she's pregnant. After deciding that abortion was not the answer for her (following one of the most humorous trips to an abortion clinic ever put on screen), she opts to carry the baby to term and place it up for adoption. It is at this point she tells her dad and stepmom about her pregnancy (played respectively by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) in a memorable scene that establishes early the greatness of this movie. These people are so smart, so down-to-earth, so honest. They are the kinds of parents that every teenager wishes they could have.

Juno's best friend recommends that she look for adoptive couples in The Penny Saver, and it is there she finds Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), the quintessential example of yuppie wholesomeness. Or so it seems on the exterior. While Vanessa is wholeheartedly determined to be a mother, Mark is hanging on to the last vestiges of a youth where the dreams of rock stardom reigned superior to those of parenthood. This becomes most apparent when we begin to wonder if Mark and Juno are going to stray into a forbidden area. But even through this, the screenplay remains smart and it doesn't disappoint. It is a situation that shows us the depths of these characters and the care that went into their construction.

As much as I want to start firing off quotes from this movie, the joy is in their discovery. There were few scenes that didn't have me at least giggling, and most of them had me laughing out loud. It isn't "mean" laughter, however, or the kind that makes us get our kicks off of someone's misfortune. It is the kind that makes us marvel in the positive aspects of the human condition. It's the kind that, by the end, makes us want to hug ourselves, and that is so rare in comedies nowadays. Juno, both the character and the film itself, doesn't attempt to enlist our sympathies through schmaltz and cliche. It is a smart, uplifting, flawlessly wonderful film.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A+

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2007 Movie Round-Up

It was a great year for movies. I wish I could have seen more, because there were certainly a lot of big awards contenders out right now that I have missed, but even if the Academy or the AFI won't completely agree with my choices for the best movies of 2007, it should at the very least provide you with ten exceedingly excellent films that came out this year that everyone should see. You might notice a few on here that were actually a part of the 2006 award season. Keep in mind that I base this list on movies that were released wide in 2007, but might have opened in New York or LA at the end of December to be eligible for Oscars. A few dozen people might have seen some of these in 2006, but this list is for the rest of us.

10. Ratatouille: Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) and Pixar make another brilliant pairing about the most unlikely story of all: how a rat becomes a renowned Parisian chef. I don't know how they do it, but the storytelling of Pixar movies is always top-notch, and it managed to make a rat-phobe like myself become emotionally involved. The genius of this animation juggernaut will be tested if they can make me love spiders. Charlotte's Web did not accomplish this feat.

9. Gone Baby Gone: Ben Afflek's first turn in the director's chair was a phenomenal one. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel, Gone Baby Gone examines the moral questions that surround the case of a missing little girl. Skillfully crafted, this is a film that demands inner-examination, finds deep emotional buttons, and hits them without mercy.

8. The Bourne Ultimatum: Last year's action film to see was James Bond in Casino Royale. This year, it was Jason Bourne's (Matt Damon) quest to solve the question of his missing identity. Director Paul Greengrass is the champion of the "jerky camera is awesome" style of filming, and the action scenes here are flawlessly staged and sweat-inducing in their intensity.


7. Zodiac: Make no question about the fact that David Fincher's chronicle of the serial killer known as The Zodiac suffers from being a little on the bloated side, but that fault is forgivable on the merit of the brilliant acting on the part of Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downy Jr. who play the San Francisco reporters whose lives are forever changed by their obsessive drive to apprehend the murderer. Fincher's ability to instill the right mood while painting a beautifully authentic picture, and making his characters unforgettable is as strong as ever.

6. Eastern Promises: David Cronenberg continues his stride into the upper-echelon of filmmakers with this intense, tautly-told tale of a mid-wife (Naomi Watts) who finds herself the target of the Russian mafia after she delivers the baby of a Ukranian teenage girl who later dies and leaves behind an incriminating diary. Viggo Mortensen, who joined Cronenberg on their last venture A History of Violence, proves his strength as a method actor and loses himself in the role of the driver/bodyguard who feels compelled to protect this woman.

5. 3:10 to Yuma: 2007 saw a small revival of the western genre, and this was a pitch-perfect way to get it started. A remake of a Glenn Ford picture from the 1950s, this film features Christian Bale as a down-on-his-luck rancher who sees an opportunity to rebuild his life by escorting a dangerous bank robber (Russell Crowe) to custody. The chemistry between the two male leads is captivating, and Crowe's work as a dangerous, yet sly and articulate, sociopath is outstanding.

4. Pan's Labyrinth: It was nominated for every Oscar under the sun last year, and deservedly so. Director Guillermo Del Toro created a stunning visual masterpiece about a little girl in 1940s fascist Spain who attempts to escape the tumultuous hardships of living with an abusive brute and her sick mother, by creating an imaginary world to which she can escape. Del Toro shows a remarkable ability to lift certain shots straight from people's nightmares.

3. Michael Clayton: If two male actors deserve award nods this year, it's Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney, who respectively play a bi-polar lawyer off his meds who has embroiled himself into a huge heap of trouble with a corporate giant he's supposed to be defending in a class-action lawsuit, and the man whose job it is to fix the reputation of the law firm they both represent. Clooney strips away his "pretty boy" image for this role, and we seem him as emotionally naked as ever as a man who is, quite simply, exhausted. This movie was directed by the man who wrote the screenplay for The Bourne Ultimatum, and he has a gift for bringing the viewer in.

2. Children of Men: Imagine having a clear timeline for when the human race was officially going to go extinct, and all of the misery and turmoil it creates. In the future, people have lost the ability to have babies. In Children of Men, we see a world without laughter, without sunshine, without hope, and it is a world we become a part of in every sense. That's at least how I felt when watching this film, and even though it was nearly a year ago when I saw it, it still echoes deeply. There are seldom films that are as visually authentic and emotionally penetrating as this one.

1. No Country for Old Men: Tommy Lee Jones' dialog in this movie alone makes it stellar and Oscar-worthy. But when you add in Javier Bardem's terrifying performance as an emotionless killing machine who is tracking down a suitcase of money stolen from a drug deal gone wrong by a poor, hapless hunter (Josh Brolin), and all of the beautiful little quirks that go into most Coen brothers movies, you have a work of pure genius. There are so many layers, questions, and subtleties in this film that even two viewings weren't able to completely satisfy, and that is part of its brilliance. This is a movie that is beautiful in its stark bleakness, but it is not a simple movie, and it is definitely not easily forgotten.