Sunday, December 23, 2007


When a movie is this hyped for this long, and for well after people have begun to see it, there's a reason for it. I was quite displeased with much of Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, so I was wary going into this. But Atonement is a really gorgeous and intricate piece of art, an intimate epic, and a compelling mystery.

I'm not sure how much to say about this without giving things away that ought to remain a surprise. I don't think it will spoil anything, though, to tell you that there is a twist, and not the one you'd guess from merely the trailers.

The movie centers around Briony Tallis, who, for most of the film, is the 13-year-old sister of Keira Knightley's character Cecelia. The Tallises are a well-to-do English family who have a lovely country house, beautiful grounds, and several servants. It's not nearly as formal a house as, say, the McCordles in Gosford Park, but there are still obviously unwritten rules about the fraternization of one class with another.

Briony is a rather fanciful girl, and a born writer. In fact, when we very first see her, she is putting the finishing touches on a play that is to be performed in celebration of her brother's return home. The keystrokes of her typewriter even begin to permeate the rhythm of the orchestral score. And, as is the case with lots of writers, there is a certain antisocial aspect to much of her behavior. She doesn't quite know (or care much) how to make herself amenable to other people.

The love story between Cecelia and Robbie (James McAvoy) is as engaging as any epic love story I've seen. This isn't just a seemingly arbitrary pairing up of an "upstairs" with a "downstairs" (Robbie is the son of the housekeeper). And it isn't just mindless sexual attraction, though boy howdy is there ever sexual attraction. They really do seem right for each other. Robbie is Oxford-educated and plans to be a doctor, and as such has quite a leg up on your average up-from-the-bottom suitor with a girl like Cecelia.

The conflict plot is set in motion when Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, witnesses from a window a scene between Robbie and Cecelia that she does not understand. What the film does rather brilliantly here is set Briony up as an unreliable witness. We see things from her perspective - what looks like Robbie humiliating Cecelia in a fairly sexually charged way - and then the film rewinds a bit to show us what really took place between them, which is actually a fledgling expression of their love for one another. But Briony only knows what she saw, and this, added to an intercepted letter and an interrupted sexual encounter in the library, makes her resentment of Robbie complete. She lashes out extravagantly, accusing him of a crime and landing him in prison (and eventually the army).

The film's conclusion is a complicated one. I can't quite sympathize with Briony in the end, and I'm not sure the film expects me to. Her lie was absolutely catastrophic, and irrevocably ruined lives. And her attempt at "atonement" seems painfully and unforgivably inadequate under the circumstances. And yet you can't help wondering what she possibly could have done to make amends. That's not quite enough to make me feel sorry for her, but perhaps it tempers my rage to think that she lived with the weight of what she did her whole life.

This film, like Gosford Park before it, has an unmistakably English sensibility. I found myself getting lost in some of the dialogue and not quite understanding some of the more rapidly delivered lines. I don't think this is a flaw of the film, but it did remind me of the great inferiority I think many Americans sometimes feel with regard to the English. At least, I know I feel that - the sense that nothing we say in our flat American accents is quite as fluent and stylish and intelligent as someone's clipped, graceful Britspeak.

And, since pretty much every critic has mentioned it, I'd be remiss in not doing so. I'm not sure how far into the film it occurs, but I think it's fair to say that the centerpiece of the film in terms of visuals is a ... well, I don't think "stunning" quite captures it ... a rather phenomenal (for lack of a more impressive adjective) continuous shot that takes place on the beach at Dunkirk (though not literally shot there). It reminds me a good deal of that famous crane shot of the street full of wounded soldiers in Gone With the Wind, but it's much longer, and more integral to the story for which it's being used. I didn't know that a camera could express such things, but I've never seen a more perfect picture of overwhelming hopelessness and desolation than the multitudes on that beach, waiting, waiting, waiting...

As much as I'm beginning to loathe talk about what should and will win Oscar gold, I would not be sorry at all to see this join the ranks of Best Pictures.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Titanic - After Ten Years

Yes, I realize other bloggers are writing about this today, but I'd like to add my two cents.

Ten years ago today was the culmination of probably the first period of time in my life when I was obsessively waiting and anticipating the release of a movie. In recent years, I have spent long, impatient months awaiting the release of Harry Potter books and movies, Lord of the Rings movies, Pirates of the Carribean movies, and to a lesser extent other event pictures, such as the Spider-Man films and the Star Wars prequels. I suppose you could say that Titanic was my first fandom, my first experience in gathering with other similarly obsessed people on internet forums and eagerly discussing the latest news, revelations, and reviews from early screenings. I frequented the message boards of Tim Doyle's now-defunct "Countdown to Titanic" site, which, if I'm not mistaken, evolved into what is now Counting Down. I read the script online at Drew's Script-O-Rama, and even followed some reviews on Doyle's site to what would eventually become my staple of movie news on the web, Ain't It Cool News.

I learned a good deal about the real history of the sinking, fell in love with the stage musical Titanic, which was also quite a smash in 1997, and agonized when the release dates kept being pushed back. What started as a simple "ooooh, that sounds interesting" in response to reading that this was the next project for Leonardo DiCaprio (yes, I was a fan, shaddup) had become a full blown obsession. I collected news articles and reviews, and by the time I sat down to watch the film, I couldn't even watch the opening credits without getting choked up. Not because it was such a goshdarn moving opening credits sequence (though it's quite effective, in my opinion), but because I was thinking about all the other people I'd met over the last several months who were sitting down to watch it at the same time I was. This was an event.

Is it perfect? Of course it isn't. The dialogue is sometimes painfully awkward and stale. But if you can get past that (and all the "JACK!" and "ROSE!" going on in the final hour), it's really quite brilliant. There are some genuinely good performances (yes there are, don't look at me like that). Say what you want about Billy Zane, and I could say plenty, but DiCaprio and Kate do some truly good work here. They're the heart of the picture and a big reason why we care so much. But what really sells the film to me are the ancillary performances - Bernard Hill, Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates, Ioan Gruffudd, Victor Garber, and Gloria Stuart deliver some of my favorite moments in the movie. Despite the lackluster dialogue, the story itself is very well crafted and does its darndest to get you ready for the last third of the movie.

And oh, what a last third it is. Perhaps the most moving parts to me are the moments that don't involve our tragic pair of lovers. There is absolutely nothing in the film that moves me more than the "Nearer, My God, To Thee" sequence. Historical purists complained about this being the American version of the hymn, rather than the version which the orchestra would have played (if indeed they did play that song, a detail which is dubious on its own). But even though that may not have been factually accurate, it was the perfect way to express what is happening on the screen. Watching the Strauss couple holding each other as the water rushes in, the mother putting her children to bed so they won't be afraid, and ship designer Andrews making a small adjustment to the clock on the mantle in the smoking room are some of the most meaningful moments in the movie to me. And having had the fictional love story presented to us, we can imagine that all of the unnamed people we are seeing go through this absolute hell have stories just as interesting and moving as Jack's and Rose's.

I saw this movie eleven times, and I don't regret one. Every time I watched it, and despite the magnificent last hour, something in my brain half-hoped that this time, the ship would veer just a little more to the left and not hit the iceberg. That's what I call compelling storytelling.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Let me get this out of the way first. People who are talking about this film's Oscar chances are probably wasting their breath. I see Depp possibly getting a Best Actor nod, but Sweeney Todd is not a "Best Picture" kind of movie - maybe at the Golden Globes, where it has already had a respectable showing among the list of the HFPA's darlings, but not the Oscars. That is not to say - AT ALL - that this is not a good movie. It's a wonderful movie, a great piece of film, and what I think is the perfect film that could possibly have been made from the stage musical. It's just not the kind of movie that Oscar voters tend to recognize. This isn't just because of the stylized violence and blood - though that's probably part of it - but it's a very particular kind of movie, and (much to its credit) it doesn't try to be anything else.

I'm sure most of you are familiar with the basics of the story, but here's a recap. Sweeney Todd was once known as Benjamin Barker, a barber who had a good life, a beautiful wife, and a baby daughter. Judge Turpin lusts after Mrs. Barker, and uses his power to have Barker sent to prison for life on a false charge. Barker breaks out of prison and returns to London fifteen years later, only to find his wife and child gone. He swears revenge on the Judge his stooge, Beadle Bamford, and after missing what might be his only chance to kill the judge, he decides to practice and sharpen his razors on the throats of his customers. His neighbor, Mrs. Lovett - baker of meat pies with no meat - is besotted with him and helps him, eventually cooking up (*cringe* so sorry for that awful pun) a scheme in which they'll dispose of the bodies by using them as meat for her pies, which become the culinary hit of London. And of course, as in all great stories, complications arise, secrets are revealed, and almost everyone dies. Great holiday entertainment for the whole family!

It starts with a lovely animated credits sequence, highlighted by the underscore to the omitted "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." There have been complaints about leaving this song out, but I didn't really miss it. The orchestration of it permeates the film, and "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd ... his skin was pale and his eye was odd" is just not the way to start a film. A play, yes - a film, no. In addition to the Ballad, two other whole numbers were cut - the Judge's song "Johanna" and "Kiss Me." "Johanna" is a wonderful characterization piece that has what I call a sort of masturbatory melody - very fitting for what we are learning about the character. But on film, we learn all that we really need to know on that score when we see the Judge look through a peephole at his 16-year-old ward, Johanna (who also happens to be Todd's estranged daughter). I have never been a great fan of "Kiss Me," and felt it was stretching the bounds of acceptable levels of over-the-top-ness, even on the stage, and would have killed the film. So I didn't personally miss it.

As far as other songs go, they're all there, though not necessarily in their entirety. Sondheim explained this really well in the press junket, saying that part of the implied contract in a stage show is that the audience will sit through songs. But in a movie, that's just not how it works, and if it doesn't advance the story, it doesn't need to be there. And he's absolutely right.

That being said, there are quite a few bits of extended singing (I'd say about 75-80% percent of what is communicated in the film is sung, not spoken), and Sondheim's songs are very dense in lyrics, so if you're not familiar with the show and the songs, I recommend being a very careful listener. One of my handful of concerns with this film is that people might miss important things that are being said because they're part of a song. Because we're not really used, as audience members, to actually listening to what people are singing on screen.

The performances are all superb. Depp, as usual, is stunning. He's only the slightest bit overdone, but that is essential to the character and the style of the film itself. And his singing voice, while not the roaring monsters of Len Cariou and George Hearn, is instead subdued, which is perfect for the medium of film (but he does know when it's time to roar, and does it admirably). I was surprised how much I liked Helena Bonham-Carter. I was not wild about what I'd seen in the previews, and as much as I adore Mrs. Lovett as a character, I can't stand most of the portrayals I've seen of her. Sacha Baron Cohen is only in a couple of scenes, but his Pirelli owns them both, as well he should. Alan Rickman seems to be treading familiar ground here, but he's so good at being diabolical (and now musically diabolical!), it's folly to criticize. His duet with Johnny, "Pretty Women," is quite impressive. Jayne Wiseman and Jamie Campbell Bower are lovely, with even lovelier voices, and I enjoy their part in the story, kind of like a Disney couple who took a wrong turn and ended up in a horror movie. I've always thought that you could play the story in a loop, because Anthony and Johanna are setting themselves up for the same kind of fate that befell Sweeney and his wife.

The real find in the cast, though, is Ed Sanders, who plays Toby. On the stage, Toby is traditionally played by a man in his late twenties or early thirties. This gives the impression of Toby as a sort of man-child - a boy in his late teens at the youngest, who never quite developed into an adult. But Sanders is an actual child, probably about 12 years old, which creates a very different dynamic. There's a difference between Pirelli smacking a man around and smacking a child around. There's a difference between a grown man singing to Mrs. Lovett "Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around" and a child singing that. Sanders plays Toby as a Dickensian child, abused by 19th Century London and the people who inhabit it. A disturbingly chronic (especially for a child) imbiber of gin, but literally the only character in the story who cares about someone else more than he cares about himself.

The biggest in my handful of concerns - and even this is rather small - has to do with probably the biggest spoiler of the story, so I'm going to inviso-text here (click to read) --> I think the Beggar Woman was both underused and overexposed, if that makes sense. She's introduced a bit too late, in my opinion. No reason, of course, that she should have been introduced in the very first scene, but it may have been a mistake not to introduce her before we hear about Lucy. Obviously, it's a very (VERY) fine line the filmmakers had to walk, to simultaneously keep the Beggar Woman in our minds and yet conceal who she really is, but I think there were a couple of missteps. They could have done more to disguise her, for one thing. It may not be as obvious to people who don't know the story, but it was quite obvious to me that the Beggar Woman is Lucy with dirty hair, face, and dress. She's even wearing the bonnet - albeit covered with soot and grime - that she wears in the flashback. This covers her face the first time we see her, but at none of the other times. The upside of this is that if you know who she is (and realize that it's completely understandable why Sweeney wouldn't recognize her), it makes the climax even more poignant. The downside, though, is that you're not as gutted as Sweeney is when we find out who she is, which is something that the stage version was able to do so successfully (because obviously it's easier to pull the wool over our eyes when the actors are so far away from us).

As a total package, this is a FANTASTIC movie - a home run for Burton and everyone involved, as far as I'm concerned - and I can't WAIT to see it again. It's not designed as an "award-bait" kind of movie, and the stage show wasn't an "award-bait" kind of show. But it's a success in every way that I think matters, and it's an armful of absolute joy, coming out just in time for Christmas. I hope everyone loves it as much as I do.


A Russian-made, Mongolian-language film, this is the first part of what is hoped to be an epic trilogy spanning the life of Genghis Khan. Mongol covers his early life and shows us the softer side of Genghis Khan - the son, the lover, the father, and the warrior.

We first meet the man who would be Genghis Khan, known to us only as Temudgin, when he is nine years old and traveling with his father to choose a bride. However, on their way there, they stop at another village and Temudgin chooses a bride from that clan instead, paying a great insult to the other clan and setting up a later conflict.

Temudgin eventually becomes a slave, but with a bit of help, manages to escape. In his twenties, he returns to marry Borte, the bride he chose as a child, but she is soon taken from him. He enlists the help of a childhood friend to get her back (though the friend makes him wait a year to get this help), and they succeed, but Temudgin refuses allegiance to this friend when he suggests that Temudgin be his second-in-command. Temudgin leaves his friend, taking a few of his most trusted warriors with him, and this creates a rivalry between the two Khans. Temudgin suffers several more trials and eventually breaks out of prison (with the help of Borte). There is a great battle between his army and the much larger army of his former friend. Temudgin's army is the victor, and the film closes here, only slightly glancing ahead at the legend Temudgin would become.

This is a gorgeous film, and a moving epic. I sincerely hope it is able to reach a wide audience when it is released this summer.

Charlie Wilson's War

Wow. It's been a while since I've updated this thing, but I'd like to dust off the cobwebs and make a fresh start, beginning with a few films I had the privilege of seeing a bit early at this year's "Butt-Numb-A-Thon" in Austin, TX.

I was concerned, watching the previews for this and having never read the book, that the movie was glorifying what America did in Afghanistan and overlooking the fact that, for all the good it did in our conflicts with Russia, it created a new conflict with a new enemy - one that we are still dealing with and are still no closer to resolving. But of course the movie doesn't overlook it - how could it do so, having been written by one of the most conscientious politically-minded writers of our time? We just don't see that aspect in the trailers, because that's the twist of the story. Not a twist in the sense of something we suddenly learn, but it's kind of the poisonous punch line of the film.

The meat of Charlie Wilson's War belongs to Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I had all but given up on Hanks as an interesting actor. For the past several years, he has seemed to be just playing the Tom Hanks character in any movie he was in, but his Charlie is a refreshing step in a new direction. It's unnerving at first to see him in a hot tub with a bunch of hot naked babes - not to mention the rear nakedness of Hanks himself - but he's very believable as a deeply flawed politician who has charm and at least a drop of human decency (though not much more). Hoffman is always amazing, but he really takes a bite out of Sorkin's writing and goes to town with it.

Oh yeah, Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame. He of the occasional platitudes and preachiness, but don't you wish you could preach like he can? This is one of my favorite bits of Sorkin writing. It's not as stirring as, say, Martin Sheen's first appearance as President Bartlett or Michael J. Fox's speech about patriotism in The American President. It's much more subtle, and I think all the stronger for that. It pushes buttons, certainly, but you'd never know it. It brings the point home firmly but quietly, without fanfare. Perhaps it's Mike Nichols' direction that reigns it in, or maybe not having a score by W.G. Snuffy Walden makes it seem less obviously uber-patriotic. But there are no great speeches about how the victory in Afghanistan has led to our troubles in the Middle East. Just a story Hoffman tells about a Zen master and a quote from the real Charlie Wilson about how yeah all this was great, but then we messed it up in the end.

Critics who slam the film for painting the US as the white knights are missing the point entirely, I feel. This is what America has always done - go in to some situation we know very little about, put a band-aid on it, and then leave, not thinking or caring how what we've done affects the future. Perhaps this movie won't tell you anything you don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that there will be someone in the darkened auditorium with you who for whom this is new information.