Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Away from Her (*** 1/2)

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

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Grant and Fiona have been married 44 years, and live alone in a cabin somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. They are still deeply in love, sweet to each other, inseparable, and live what seems like an idyllic life. One night, as they clean the kitchen, Fiona puts a frying pan in the freezer, and from that moment on, everything changes.The idea of a love story involving Alzheimer’s disease is intriguing in part because, since memory is so closely tied to the idea of romance (remembering your first date, first kiss or wedding day) that you wonder what would happen if memory went away. Would your wife still love you if she didn’t really know who you were? Sarah Polley’s feature film directorial debut, Away from Her, dares to answer these questions in a film that is beautiful, sad, haunting and uplifting, without ever becoming a manipulative tear-jerker.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent play Fiona and Grant, in two of the most powerful performances of 2007, and their work helps elevate a film that is already relentlessly effective. Eventually, it is decided that perhaps Fiona should stay, for a time, at a nursing home. Grant refuses, stating that he could not be without her. After Fiona wanders off on a skiing trip and is found by Grant several hours later, he realizes that she may be right.

If you haven’t yet read the other reviews or seen any previews, I will let you enjoy the rest of the plot, as it’s hard to describe much more without ruining it. I will say that the script, also by Polley, is a masterwork, as I really felt that these characters’ whole histories were contained in this 110 minute movie. By the end of the film, it felt like I really knew this people.

The other main characters in the film are all well-cast. Michael Murphy plays Aubrey, a mute fellow patient of Fiona’s who comes to depend on her as well, and Murphy’s performance is a marvel of subtleness. Olympia Dukakis gives her best performance in many years as Aubrey’s wife, Marian, who Grant comes to for some advice. Kristen Thomson plays Kristy, a nurse at the home who becomes a confidant to Grant, and it’s refreshing to see a good part written for a nurse, for a change.

Julie Christie was nominated for her phenomenal work here, and she deserves the nomination, but without a nomination also for Gordon Pinsent, it seems like a bittersweet victory. The film’s main narrative follows things more from Grant’s point of view, since as Fiona’s memory fades, her grip on reality will fade to, and the emotional core would be harder to convey on film. As Grant says, he cannot imagine life without Fiona. The film is not really about how he manages without her, but rather how he comes to terms with the fact that he might have to.

Atonement (***)

Monday, February 4th, 2008

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Atonement, based upon the novel by Ian McEwan, is about how the hasty actions of a young girl shatter multiple lives, including her own. It’s a romance, to a point, but it’s also haunting, bitter and heartbreaking. Two of its main characters are fools in love, and the third is younger, full of wit and creativity, but, she sees something that she doesn’t understand, and changes everything.

Joe Wright, the director of 2005’s winning version of Pride and Prejudice, re-teams with that film’s star Keira Knightley, alongside James McAvoy, to make a gorgeously photographed, exquisitely rendered, well-acted drama. Keira Knightley plays a privileged young lady named Cecilia Tallis, and James McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, the son of hired help, who grew up with Cecilia and in fact went to medical school on her father’s dime. Of course, they fall in love. Saoirse Ronan plays Cecilia’s younger sister Briony, a fiery little girl who writes plays and has a small crush on Robbie.

On a sunny afternoon, Briony sees Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain, and doesn’t understand what she is seeing. Later that night, she sees something else, and her imagination begins to work. Eventually, Robbie is accused of a crime by Briony. And we flash-forward several years, as these three people must now live with the consequences of Briony’s actions.

Pretty heavy stuff, and indeed, Atonement is not a light, giggly affair. The first act feels like one of those breezy British romance films about the class struggles, but there is a dark undercurrent, and as the film enters its second and third acts, it gets even bleaker. It still am not sure if Keira Knightley is a good actress or not, she was luminous in Pride and Prejudice, and here she’s just as lovely, but as far as her acting goes, she’s definitely the weak link in the cast. James McAvoy gives a very strong performance as Robbie, and helps make the tragedies of the film all the more tragic. The Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan’s role is very effective, pretty surprising when you learn that the actress is only thirteen! Romola Garai is not as good as Briony at age 18, but Vanessa Redgrave, in her brief role as an older Briony, gives a great performance, and makes the film’s narrative all the more twisty and complicated. Brenda Blethyn has a small role as Robbie’s mother, and I need to call out Benedict Cumberbatch’s unsettling performance as Paul Marshall, a chocolate maker with some unhealthy interests.

From a visual standpoint, Atonement is an artistic triumph. There is a tracking shot, for instance, at the beach at Dunkirk that lasts for five and a half minutes, and will probably have you holding your breath. It’s that good. The cinematography, by Seamus McGarvey, is beautiful and lush, and look at his use of colors, how they’re mostly drab and muted, except for the rare outbursts of strong colors like green, the color of Cecilia’s evening dress.

Atonement is a fascinating, depressing, great looking movie.

There Will Be Blood (****)

Friday, January 18th, 2008

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made five feature films, and they’re all great. Not as in pretty good or worth a look, but as in excellent, remarkable movies . His debut was Hard Eight (or Sydney, as it’s sometimes known), starring Philip Baker Hall in one of the best forgotten performances of the 90s, followed by the phenomenal Southern California epics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and in 2002 Anderson directed Adam Sandler in his career-best work in Punch-Drunk Love. From his track record, it seems that Anderson would have been content to make his next film another look at modern life in So Cal, but that wasn’t the case, as none of his previous films can prepare one for the demented brilliance that is There Will Be Blood.Starring the one and only Daniel-Day Lewis in a performance of raw and shocking power, There Will Be Blood (based upon the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair,) follows Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil tycoon as he scams, shams and muscles his way to the top in early 20th Century California. Right from the beginning, we pick up that this isn’t an ordinary film. It opens with Plainview deep in the ground, trying to excavate riches from the earth. He is covered in filth and dirt, and we see the desperation and greed on his face. After some setbacks, Plainview decides to try his luck with oil, and finds that he has a knack for this line of work.What’s interesting about the first 20 or so minutes of the film is that it’s done completely without dialogue, relying largely on Day-Lewis’ extraordinary acting and cinematographer Roger Elswit’s jaw-dropping work to tell the story. Flash-forward several years, and Plainview is on the road with his ‘son’ H.W. (Dillon Freasier), trying to suck dry both the land and the money from all whom he meets. He and his business partner Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds) are visited by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who claims that he knows where a large supply of oil is located.Plainview and H.W. end up at the Sunday Ranch, where they meet Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also played by Dano, I still am not sure if they’re actually different characters or another trick of Anderson’s ingenious screenplay). Eli, a young preacher, stands in the way of Plainview and his oil. Of course, their battle of wills is a big part of the film.Also important to the plot is the introduction of a character played by the actor Kevin J. O’Connor, who may or may not be who he says he is. The film is mysterious, unsettling, and uncompromising in the way it never reveals its whole hand, in the way it pushes us, provokes us, taunts us. In the way it refuses to tell this epic in a conventional way, or resolve it in a way that Hollywood tells us films should be resolved.Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the true great actors, and his work here is unlike anything he’s ever done. Daniel Plainview is cruel, vicious and sadistic, but Day-Lewis makes him strangely compelling. Plainveiw is larger-than-life in this film, and he needed an actor who could play that kind of role convincingly. The real surprise in this film is Paul Dano, who gives a performance that is, in its own way, every bit as good as Day-Lewis’. It’s a brilliant supporting role, and I hope Dano is also nominated for his terrific work. Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds and Dillon Freasier all give strong performances as well.The film in places reminds me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Giant, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the film is, in fact, dedicated to Robert Altman). It also evokes in its imagery the work of Terrence Malick and, of course, Kubrick (I say “of course” because Anderson is often compared to Kubrick). There Will Be Blood is a full-blooded, unforgettable epic of an American tyrant, and more proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the truly great modern filmmakers.