Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Back in July, when Transformers came out, there was this really mysterious trailer in front of it. It had these kids at a party, and it was shot on handheld camera, kinda like The Blair Witch Project. Then there was all this noise and running around and OMG WHATS GOING ON THATS THE STATUE OF LIBERTYS HED IN THE STREETZ, and it was all very enigmatic. There was no title attached, just the date 01-18-08. There was bupkis about it on the internet, other than that it was a JJ Abrams Joint (Alias, Lost, MI3). People talked and talked about what it was. Was it Voltron? Was it H.P. Lovecraft, maybe Cthulhu (my personal hope, but no)? As time went on, the title of the movie was revealed as Cloverfield. The marketing for this film will have gone down as one of the great viral marketing campaigns, like The Blair Witch Project, or Snakes on a Plane. But while Cloverfield has borrowed Blair Witch's lo-fi aesthetic, it borrows just as much fizzle from the latter movie, in not quite living up to the hype it promised in early trailers.
The plot is Bourne Ultimatum-simple: some kids in NY are throwing a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and it's being filmed by Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel), and later Rob's friend Hud (T.J. Miller, who carries most of the film on his shoulders), who is crushing on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, who REALLY NEEDS TO RETURN ZOOEY DESCHANEL'S DNA RIGHT NOW). Rob's "best friend" Beth (a very good Odette Yustman) comes to the party with man-friend in tow, drama ensues, and then the power goes out. When it returns, reports on the TV abound of a capsized oil tanker in the harbor......and then the Statue of Liberty's head rolls down the street, and it's all south from there.
The entire film is shot on handheld camera, which works very well for it. I liked the street level feel and how it worked in the giant monster genre. I liked the unavoidable allusions to 9/11, and I felt that they added weight to the film. Unfortunately, the story is so paper-weight that it wouldn't hold up to repeated viewings. There is a lot of fat in the form of a too-long intro before the action happens, which isn't good for a 75-minute movie. Gojira (the name of the movie is Gojira, not Godzilla....I don't want to hear about American edits with an added Raymond Burr........) was a great film because it tied fears about nuclear technology and the psychic residue leftover from WWII together, and made what would have been a mere popcorn film into something else. Cloverfield is pretty much popcorn, and not much else. There is good stuff. The monster, and its spawn. One character has a death that can only be described as............colorful. The ruined city. The acting is pretty good, but I was surprised later on that the young woman playing Marlena was not the great ZD, but a carbon copy. Not since the great Skeet Ulrich/Johnny Depp heist have I seen such a blatant aping of an actor's style and look, and that's distracting.
This is a short review for a short film. While I enjoyed Cloverfield for what it was, I was left wanting a lot more, and not in a good way. Those of you prone to motion sickness would do well to stay the heck away from Cloverfield, since there is a lot of turbulence involved in the shaki-cam-ness. I give Cloverfield a 9 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Atonement won the Golden Globe for Best Drama a little over a week ago, and it seems a likely candidate to be nominated for an Oscar the morning after I post this, so I don't think I was wrong in having heightened expectations. And Atonement is indeed an awardsy movie: A sweeping drama about two lovers torn apart, first by a misunderstanding and then by the second world war. It's spectacularly shot with some impressive set pieces. It's got an haunting, evocative score. And it boasts some terrific performances. But something was missing.

Here, roughly, is the story: Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) have grown up together; he is the son of her family's housekeeper. At the start of the movie their relationship is fairly siblingly, but their latent passion for one another is awoken after Robbie sees Cecilia dive into a fountain to retrieve part of a broken jug wearing naught but her underthings. Also witnessing the fountain-dive is Briony (Saoirse Ronan), Cecilia's 13-year-old younger sister and a fledgling writer. Briony isn't sure what to make of all this, but after intercepting a naughty letter from Robbie to Cecilia, Briony and her older cousin Lola (Juno Temple) determine that Robbie must be a sex maniac. Later that night, Briony catches a couple having sex in the bushes (clearly, this is not a good day for her). The male runs off, but the female, it turns out, is her cousin Lola. Lola claims ignorance as to who was on top of her, and Briony--believing Robbie to be a sex fiend--assumes the assailant must be him. When Briony gives this as her testimony, Robbie is sent to prison and later to fight with the British Army. Robbie and Cecilia are torn apart, and Briony is left to fight her guilt.

It's a good, gripping plot, and it's aided by capable direction from Joe Wright (who also directed 2005's Pride & Prejudice), stellar cinematography from Seamus McGarvey (World Trade Center, Sahara) and an absolutely top-notch original score by Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta). So it's likely to win it's fair share of awards. Still, I was left underwhelmed.

Here's the problem: While Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie found themselves in some horribly heart-wrenching situations, this critic's heart was never properly wrenched. And I think it's because I never really got to know the characters. Briony we get to know the most, but all we get from her is a sense of precocious fussbudgety. Robbie we get a little less from: While we do get a sense of his struggle for acceptance (being of lower birth than Cecilia & co.), he's really just a generic lover-turned-fighter. And Cecilia is just a garden-variety tragic heroine.

I don't think this fault lies with the actors; Ronan, McAvoy, and Knightley all do commendable jobs. Their love, fear, and shame all feel real, but they feel like the love, fear, and shame of people who I don't really know. As Robbie staggered about in combat, I couldn't help but think: "This is rough and all, but why should I care more about you than any of the other soldiers here?"

I won't blame Ian McEwan either, who wrote the novel upon which this movie is based. I have not read the novel Atonement, but with all the acclaim it's gotten (Time book of the year, among other accolades) I can't imagine that the characters are as inscrutable on the page as they are on the screen.

If I have to assign blame, it'll be to screenwriter Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American, Mary Reilly). Hampton put all the pieces in place, but forgot to imbue them with a soul.

Atonement still manages to get a 10, so the character anonymity doesn't kill it. But for a movie that's aiming for Hollywood's highest honor, that anonymity might well be it's undoing.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Golden Compass

With the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling showed the world that kiddy-lit can be entertaining as well as deep and thought-provoking, and can appeal to adults just as much as children. Naturally, the greedy movie execs thought, "Kiddie fantasy is big right now, especially British kiddie fantasy." Following the "if it ain't broke, run it into the ground until it is" philosophy, movie-makers looked to Phillip Pullman and his His Dark Materials series in order to continue the trend. Thus the first movie, The Golden Compass, was born.

Poor intentions aside, The Golden Compass is a fun ride, and even a good story. It features performances that range from a little bland to downright skillful, and seems to promote the innocence of childhood, as well as denounce people who try to control others. Dakota Blue Richards does a splendid job as Lyra, the main character, an orphan girl of about 11 years. She lives at Jordan College in Oxford, England, and is taken care of, but generally forgotten. Richards carries the film with surprising aplomb considering that this is her very first film. Supporting performances include Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, a government official who takes Lyra under her wing, Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Lyra’s adventurous and somewhat distant uncle, the voice of Ian McKellan as Iorek Byrnison, a giant talking polar bear, and Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby, a cowboy (complete with six-shooter and accent) who flies a zeppelin. Kidman is sweet/conniving enough as Mrs. Coulter, but is very lacking in depth most of the time. Craig plays a much softer version of Lord Asriel than in the books, and suffers from not enough screen time. The ice bear Iorek is pretty well done, but I can’t help thinking that Gollum was so much better every time he comes on the screen. And Elliot plays his part well, but the part itself is just slightly too clichéd.

The new and not-so-new ideas in this movie abound, including a person’s soul existing outside their body, called a dæmon. A person’s dæmon exists as an animal manifestation of that person, and the form it takes shares characteristics with the person. I don’t really understand Pullman’s choice of that term to describe it; I think he could have chosen something with less negative connotations. Also, there is the concept of the ice bears, a race of talking polar bears that live in the far north. They are basically just like people, and treated as such. Talking animals is a tried and true convention of fantasy stories, but it being bears is kinda new. Also, when ice bears fight each other, the results are pretty cool.

Then there are the religious and spiritual elements and controversies of the movie. The Magisterium, which Mrs. Coulter is a part of, is a combination of a state-sponsored church and a totalitarian government. It endeavors to control every part of a person’s life, to “tell them what to do,” as Mrs. Coulter puts it. The Magisterium, even in the movie, bears a striking resemblance to the Catholic church, and some have interpreted this as a direct attack on Christianity. Pullman, who is an outspoken atheist, has said himself that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” with these books. IMHO, it’s not a very good idea to purposefully insult a large chunk of your potential readership. On the other hand, some Christian leaders see the Magisterium as an indictment of those who would use Christianity as a form of oppression and subjugation. After all, Jesus was into letting people know the best way to live, not making them do it.

The movie itself was pretty balanced between being a fantasy epic, a personality study, an action film, and a sci-fi piece, doing each with moderate amounts of success. The first third of the film, which takes place at Jordan College and in London, is very warm and inviting, but the scenes on the sea and in the frozen north are dark, and not very well-shot. Director Chris Weitz, who previously did About a Boy, doesn’t make his film stand out from the other children’s fantasy movies of the day, and handles a vast array of characters competently. A vast array there is, but many of the characters just appear and disappear, so they’re not very well-developed. But I left the theater looking forward to the next movie, which is due out in 2009, and that’s what you want with a series.

Iconic lines:
There aren't really any that stick out. Sorry, guys.

22 Rating: 9