Monday, January 28, 2008

There Will Be Blood: A Review

I kept waiting to be impressed by Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, to have some golden token of wisdom implanted in my brain. I wanted to be blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Daniel Plainview. Even more simply, I wanted to feel something—anything, really—other than confusion. Unfortunately, it never happened.

I've been waiting for someone to tell me why the story is so captivating, but I have yet to read a positive review that does anything more than throw out perfunctory adjectives like "epic," "grandiose" or "breathtaking" without really saying anything. I wanted to "get" this film. I wanted to connect. But I just can't make it happen, no matter how many times I tell myself that I should have been blown away by this film.

The movie opened promisingly. Perhaps my favorite image of the entire film is of Plainview on a train with his newly adopted son. It's nearly the only chance in the movie to connect with Plainview's character. For the rest of the film, I was left in the dark as to what motivated Plainview. Sure, greed is the easy answer. The biggest question of the film for me was why his hatred for Eli Sunday (played well by Paul Dano, but more on that in a minute) was so soul-consuming. Frankly, Eli was so similar to Plainview that I would have expected some sort of kinship between them. I think Eli felt that for Plainview, but it was certainly not reciprocated.

I appreciate Mr. Day-Lewis' immersion into the role. He was certainly unrecognizable, and his mannerisms and voice were completely appropriate and maybe even bordering on iconic. But I couldn't connect with the character. I was pleased to see at least one other critic out there agreed with me on that point. And that's why, out of the three 2008 Oscar nominees for Best Actor I've seen, I'd put him in third place behind Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen.

On the other hand, I was quite captivated by Paul Dano's performance as both Eli and Paul Sunday. I'm calling it here and now: Paul Dano is the next Edward Norton. If I could have followed Eli throughout the 2-hour and 38-minute run time, I would have felt my time was better spent. I understood what was driving Eli. And while I didn't agree with his tactics or even his motivation, I still connected with him. And to me, that's what acting is about. An actor is a connection between an audience and a story. And Day-Lewis, whether due to the script, direction, acting or otherwise, failed to deliver.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Eastern Promises: A Review

Until this afternoon, the last film I'd seen starring Viggo Mortensen was Return of the King. In fact, I'd only ever seen Mr. Mortensen as Aragorn. Now, I will also remember him as Nikolai.

Eastern Promises didn't strike me as my type of film when it came out. But I'd read enough positive reviews to be intrigued. The Oscar nod to Viggo for Best Actor was the final straw, so I bit the bullet and picked it up at Blockbuster.

Films in this genre normally seem a bit over my head, if I'm being honest, but I was impressed by the clarity of the story. Credit goes to both writer Steven Knight and director David Cronenberg for accomplishing that feat. After all, weaving a story about the inner workings of the Russian mob in London in a way that the average moviegoer can understand is quite an undertaking, and the team succeeded with flying colors.

The story centers a Russian mob family involved in various nefarious deeds, the most central to the story being the rape of a 14-year-old Russian prostitute, who subsequently gives birth to a daughter. A British midwife (Naomi Watts) of Russian descent is present to deliver the baby, but when the mother dies, she embarks on a quest to find the mother's family. The mother's diary leads her to the Russian mob family, and Nikolai, who is basically like a servant to the mob boss' son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), is tasked with taking care of the problem.

Ms. Watts is believable in her role, but the character doesn't require much of a stretch for her. Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the Russian mob boss, is both convincingly quaint and ruthless. In a role where it would have been easy to channel Brando's Godfather or other variations on that theme, Mr. Mueller-Stahl instead puts his own spin on what it means to be the head of a family crime organization. Whether due to the script, direction or acting, the character of Kirill seemed a little uneven to me. The subtext of the character's psyche wasn't evident until much later in the film than would have been preferable, but by the last third of the film, things are a bit clearer.

The real stand-out here is obviously Mr. Mortensen, hence the Oscar nod. At no point did I feel like I was looking at Aragorn or even at Viggo. He flawlessly channeled the Russian stoicism you would expect from a hired thug, and yet, even from his first scene, it was obvious there was more going on for this character than met the eye.

And, for those of you who are curious about the steam room scene: Yes, you get to see Mr. Mortensen naked (yes, completely, though not on showcase, if you get my drift), and No, there is nothing remotely erotic about the scene. It is violent, raw and cringe-inducing.

All in all, this is a very good effort from all parties involved, and it succeeds on most levels. It's a good way to venture into the organized crime film genre for those not normally interested in such movies. And as an added bonus for LOTR geeks: if you watch the extra feature about the tattoos, you can spot Mr. Mortensen's Elvish "Nine" tattoo on his left shoulder. ;-)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sweeney Todd: A Review

My sister and I caught Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street last night for the third time. I don't usually see movies more than once in the theatres, but I was happy to make an exception for such a remarkable film.

Having never seen the stage version and having not been familiar with the music, my excitement for the movie came from the always-interesting collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Throw in the promise of getting to hear Johnny Depp sing? I was hooked the moment I heard about it.

There are two things to keep in mind if you plan on seeing this film: (1) there will be music (and lots of it), and (2) there will be blood (and lots of it). A lot of people with whom I've spoken were surprised at one or both of those aspects. So there you have it. You've been warned.

That being said, the blood is more of the Kill-Bill variety than of the torture porn variety. Yes, you see throats being slit, and you see blood spurting, but it's so thick, gooey, and vibrantly red compared to the rest of the color palette that it's almost comical. There are some extremely disturbing images in this film, though, so don't think that it's in any way, shape or form appropriate for kids. Stories don't get much darker than this, and not even all adolescents can handle it, so keep that in mind when deciding whom to bring with you.

After my first viewing, I wished they had played up some of the more comic elements of the film. But Sweeney Todd seems to be a film that only gets better upon multiple viewings; case in point, I found myself chuckling at much more regular intervals throughout the film last night. The humor is very subtle in a lot of places, but it's more evident as you get to know the story and the characters better.

My biggest (and perhaps only) criticism of the film is that I wanted to know what became of Johanna and Anthony. While the film isn't about them, they were really the only source of purity and innocence in the film, and I wanted resolution for them as well as for myself. One review of the film I read a while back said that it seemed like Tim Burton didn't really know what to do with them, so he simply omitted most of their story. That's a fairly accurate analysis.

As for the acting, I thought Helena Bonham Carter was marvelous as Mrs. Lovett. I'm not sure why she wasn't nominated for an Oscar for her performance, though with the snubs for Best Picture and Best Director as well, I'm thinking perhaps the Academy has a vendetta against Mr. Burton. Kudos must also go to 14-year-old Ed Sanders, who plays Toby, possibly the most tragic character in a film overflowing with them. His voice and acting range are both very impressive, especially among the heavyweights that are Ms. Carter and Mr. Depp.

Speaking of whom, Mr. Depp's performance in this film is well-deserving of the Best Actor nod from the Academy. The range of emotion he shows in this role, often with just his eyes, is phenomenal. It's a nuanced performance, and you have to watch carefully to see how his character progresses from cynical to vengeful to being driven mad with rage. The way he uses his voice in the film literally gave me chills on numerous occasions. I can't count the number of times I've listened to "Epiphany," but every time I hear him growl, "I want you bleeders," I simultaneously cower and squeal with glee. I'm not sure there's another actor out there who could have pulled off making a murderous barber like Sweeney Todd not only sympathetic and tragic but also magnetic.

I won't be seeing Sweeney Todd a fourth time in theatres, but I am eagerly anticipating adding the DVD to my collection. In my opinion, this is the best of Tim Burton's work. If you admire his style, make sure you catch it before it's out of theatres.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cloverfield: A Review

I was among the millions of moviegoers who helped Cloverfield to the biggest January opening ever last weekend. That being said, if I had it to do over again, I'm not sure I would have been there.

I spent the second half of the film's 84-minute running time standing at the side of the theatre to avoid regurgitating my popcorn onto the people in front of me. While the handheld filming style makes for a very unique movie-going experience, for those of us with even the slightest susceptibility to motion sickness, it's a gimmick we could do without.

Unfortunately, the story (and I'm using that term very loosely) would have failed miserably if it had been filmed traditionally. I say this simply because there really isn't a story. After I'd had time to digest what I'd seen, I realized that the film really shows like a feature-length trailer for a traditional disaster movie. Spoilers ahead, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.

At the end of the film, we know nothing more than we did at the beginning. The monster is apparently impervious to any means of warfare the military can unleash. We don't know its origin or its purpose. We just know it's huge, it's spawning little monsters that make you explode, and it's apparently unstoppable. The characters in which we'd invested ourselves die. The writers were kind enough to throw us a crumb of resolution through the proclamations of affection from the star-crossed lovers, but it's far from satisfying as only minutes later, they're gone.

I'm not one to believe that all stories have to have a happy ending, but I want to leave the theatre feeling like something was at least accomplished. Perhaps if the story had been told from the monster's point of view, I would have had a more gratifying experience.

As for the actual monster, I will admit it was pretty amazing. It's unlike anything I personally have seen on film before. However, a friend to whom I was attempting to describe the monster pointed out that it sounded like Sin (of Final Fantasy X fame, for those not in the know), and I have to say she was pretty much spot on. While Sin, as I remember it anyway, is slightly more amorphous than the Cloverfield monster, they could certainly be cousins. (That friend, by the way, demanded to be named when I told her I was mentioning her analysis. So, Brittany Froeschle, here you go.)

So that's my take on it, folks. Interesting (if nauseating) experiment in film-making, but ultimately unsatisfying due to the lack of a story arc.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Bibliography in Progress

Or, What I Someday Hope to See on IMDB or Dates shown refer to first draft.


Don't Forget [working title] - August 2007
Logline: In flux.
Status: Shelved until I'm ready to throw out 90 percent of the current story and start again.

The Affair of Monsieur Valentine
- December 2007
Logline: A disgraced royal daughter takes a new identity as the mysterious, sword-wielding Monsieur Valentine in order to save her sister the queen from the narcissistic and abusive king. By her actions, passions are mistaken and loyalties are shaken in this battle between what is expected and what is right.
Status: Rewrite finished March 2009. Awaiting edits.

[working title] - April 2008 (ScriptFrenzy)
Logline: After being laid off, a pharmacy technician is forced to take a job at an apothecary run by an eccentric old woman who specializes in tea blends. When he realizes the woman has tricked him into signing away his firstborn child, he must find a way to break the curse or he and his wife will lose their child forever.
Status: Shelved.

The Sound of Silence [working title] - May 2008
Logline: After undergoing a life-changing experience at a zen retreat, the director of a talented high school orchestra creates controversy and challenges minds when he insists on performing John Gage's "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds" at contest.
Status: Rewrite in progress during May 2009.

Mute - July 2008
Logline: A man who refuses to speak is forced to question his choices when he falls for a woman with severe dyslexia.
Status: 2008 BFSC first round qualifier. 2009 BlueCat Quarterfinalist. Currently entered in several competitions.

Double Exposure [working title] - April 2009
Logline: A inept doppelgänger struggles to do her job when she accidentally befriends her assignment. When she begins falling ill, the doppelgänger is forced to choose between saving her own life or hurting her new friend's.
Status: First draft completed during ScriptFrenzy. Second draft scheduled for late summer.

'Til Death Parts Us - June 2009
Logline: A frustrated wife offs her annoying husband, thinking she'll finally be free of him and his shenanigans. Her plans are foiled, though, when he returns as a ghost bent on making her life even more miserable.
Status: First draft in progress.


Life in the Tire & Lube Express Lane
- NaNoWriMo 2005
Summary: A memoir detailing my soul-sucking, five-week stint working in the automotive department at Wal-Mart.
Status: Shelved indefinitely.

Clairvoyant - NaNoWriMo 2006
Summary: A young woman begins experiencing clairvoyant visions the night her parents are murdered.
Status: Permanently shelved due to horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad writing. The concept, however, has potential to be revisited at a later date.

Mute - NaNoWriMo 2007
Summary: See logline for the screenplay.
Status: This story wanted to be an indie film from the moment I started writing it. The novel is shelved, but the story is getting its wish, at least in so far as it has become screenplay.

Fairytale Redux [working title] - NaNoWriMo 2008
Summary: A fairy tale about the natures of evil, love and duty.
Status: Completed NaNoWriMo with 77,000 words. Currently working on completion of first draft, most likely somewhere between 100,000 and 125,000 words.


The House
- August 2008
Written as a short fiction challenge with Matt Marko, the story is based on the following prompt he provided: "Female main character awakens to find her husband vanished and her country house boarded up from the outside."
The entire text of this story (approximately 2800 words) is available here.

Learning to Fly - October 2008
Approximately 650 words and available here.

Greyhound - October 2008
A bit of flash fiction written in a bus station. Available here.

Fouettard - December 2008
A 1,700-word interpretation of the legend of Père Fouettard.

Charity: A Christmas Story - December 2008
A story about an unexpected guest who shows up to a Christmas dinner party.

Soul Business - May 2009
A man encounters a woman selling souls from the back of a truck.


Roadkill - July 2008
Status: Story is written. Storyboards are in (very, very, very slow) development by animator Kate Dittmann.