2 surprises, 1…non-surprise

I finished my goal of watching every nominated Oscar movie (at least for Best Picture), something I don’t think I’ve ever done before.

 I expected to dislike Atonement primarily because I loved the book so much; A.O. Scott, who I used to think was pretty good but who is increasingly dead to me, gave it a nasty review.

It is wonderful. Tricky to adapt with the shifting points of view in part one, the screenplay manuevers through all of that to deliver as powerfully as the book. Art direction: first rate; it looks exactly the way I pictured it. Casting: great again. I fell in love with James McAvoy when he played the faun in the Narnia movie. Keira Knightly is perfect, another one who can say so much with a face that shouldn’t be as expressive as it is. The little girl is great. Vanessa Redgrave is awesome as the little girl grown up. James Wright rocks (he directed Pride and Prejudice, another movie I figured I’d hate and that I loved). I can’t really write about it beyond gushing, and I don’t really want to. Just buy it for me, someone.

 The movie I expected to love and be blown away by, There Will Be Blood, was, on the other hand, rather bad. Paul Thomas Anderson has done some real crap (Boogie Nights) and some good stuff (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love). He does consistently muck up his movies with at least one overscored section. In the 2 good ones mentiooned above, he manages to only do that in one sequence. There Will Be Blood is hammered throughout by a psuedo-Alban Berg score that damn near destroys it. It’s not helped by the screenplay, which basically doesn’t have much to say beyond the title. It’s also not helped by Paul Dano cast in a dual role that he can’t really pull off; honestly, I don’t know which young American actor could have pulled it off (it’s not very well-written), though I suspect Jake Gyllenhall would have been better. A young Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been perfect, but no fair time travelling. (Maybe Gyllenhall was the one originally cast and replaced by Dano, in which case, silly me.)

The saving grace is, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, which basically is the movie. DDL eats up every piece of scenery in his path and then starts on the actors, a better-looking, even creepier John Huston. I’ve had to laugh at the reviews that say he “may have been inspired” by Huston; this is a full-out impersonation, and I would guess, given the director’s love of ’70 Hollywood, that Anderson pointed him to Huston’s performance in Chinatown for inspiration. But it’s an embodiment comparable to Helen Mirren as the queen or Toby Smith as Capote, not a bad impression like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hudsucker Proxy, or a passable facsimile like Hoffman’s Capote. DDL is absolutely great and a gas to watch. That said, the movie’s a tough go; it feels way too long.

In the solid, equal parts enjoyable and predictable category is Michael Clayton. Clooney is one hell of a movie star. He’s not acting here any more than Cary Grant ever did (unlike in Syriana, in which he can act), but there’s no one so effortless working right now. I’m a sucker for whistle blower movies, and this one’s got it all going on. Best of all are Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, but honestly, there’s not a misstep; even the wannabe actor Sidney Pollack works just right. Completely lacking in surprise, it’s still riveting due to great performances and solid writing and directing.

As for the Oscars, everything that is wrong with Hollywood can be summed up in one moment: the reaction to a Juno film clip containing the line, “I’m the cautionary whale.” It received a huge laugh. It’s such a horrible, overly clever, self-conscious line, and Hollywood throws back its head and laughs like it’s never been quite so amused before. ‘Cuz see, it’s supposed to be tale, not whale, and despite the fact that I’m positive roughly 80% of the audience doesn’t quite know what a cautionary tale even is, they still laugh, because when you laugh at clever things then you yourself must be rather clever, and also, a pregnant girl comparing herself to a whale is, like, totally funny.

That said, a year that can yeild two great movies and a whole bunch more that were darn good gives me faith in the state of things. There will always be Junos, those mythical “little indies” fully backed by huge corporations like Fox Searchlight that can make you grind your teeth about the kind of screenplays that are selling. But there’s a crop of directors, James Wright, the Coens, Tony Gilroy, Clooney, and yes, still Anderson if he can ever lose that horrible music, who are doing some great stuff and working with really good writers.

Cinema is not dead; it doesn’t even seem sick right now.


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