Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Review or half-baked treatise? You be the judge.

In my lowly, non-credentialed, blog-my-friends-read opinion, Ratatouille was the best movie of 2007. I am, apparently, nearly entirely alone in this view, despite its general consideration as the best-reviewed movie of 2007. Instead, most critics have heaped such accolades on No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, two extraordinarily well made films I expected to feel similarly about, but ultimately, didn't enjoy.

I wanted to like both of these pictures - I'm their target demographic: I love the Coen Brothers; I love Daniel Day-Lewis; I love off-kilter, indie, period pieces; I love the dialogue in both; I love Blood's score, and I love that No Country doesn't have a score. But both left me feeling hollow and worse than when I entered the theater. Both left me wondering, "What's the point?"

I get that No Country's moral is, essentially, that life sucks, and that Blood's is that greed is bad. I'm also aware that one doesn't necessarily have to enjoy the experience of watching great stories unfold in order to recognize them as such. We only have to look to the tragedies of Shakespeare, the Greeks, the French, to see that depressing fare is usually regarded as being the most important. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find someone with a stronger distaste for happy, tie-up-all-the-loose ends stories than me. My beef is with the idea that because something is upsetting, it is automatically to be touted as "profoundly meaningful" and "adult."

It's a commonly held belief that good comedy is harder to do than drama, and, perhaps similarly, it's my opinion that "humanity is terrible" stories are easier than life-affirming ones. Of course, it's all in the way that the story is told, and Blood and No Country are certainly told uniquely. But while it might be cool to watch Daniel Plainview flip out and Anton Chigurh kill people, it doesn't resonate with me emotionally nearly as much as the journey the characters take in Ratatouille (it's also why - and again, I'm apparently in the extreme minority on this - I'll defend Juno's inclusion in the Best Picture category as every bit as well-deserved as the other contenders).

This all probably comes down to personal preference, and it could be that my taste level is incapable of developing the nuanced palette of a real critic. But when I think about my favorite movies, they're the ones that offer social critiques or observances, yes, but also hope and empathy. It's not that there's an absence of good people in the movies in question, or that a film must have relatable, "good" characters, but when, as is the case with Blood, the focus is so unrelentingly, bleakly one-noted, there's just not a whole lot I can take away from the experience.

There Will Be Blood is the story of Daniel Planview (Day-Lewis), a self-described "oilman" at the turn of the 20th century, and his personal undoing at the cost of aquring as much material wealth as possible. It's a thoroughly American picture, in that the crux of its message is the danger of unchecked capitalism and fundamentalism, though it's universal enough not to be a "message movie," but more deeply about human competition and deceit.

Both Day-Lewis and Paul Dano - as fiery, young preacher, Eli Sunday, every bit the snakeoil salesman Plainview is - give bravura performances in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth film. The vast landscapes and sparse dialogue of the movie's opening scenes are striking because they both effectively convey the solitude and peril of Plainview's work, and in turn, set the tone for Anderson's signature bloatedness.

I'm yet again the odd man out for finding the director's last effort, Punch-Drunk Love, his most effective; although, like all of his work, Love is both flawed and justifiably assured filmmaking, it seemed he'd learned an important lesson about editing with that picture (namely, that it's a good thing). While Blood is Anderson's strongest, thematically, nearly every scene practically screams, "Look how much of a masterpiece this is!" Still, he's certainly right to feel confident about his abilities - every frame of Blood is beautiful.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is due much credit for his eerily foreboding score; the combination of Anderson's intense imagery and Greenwood's loud, hyper-unsettling compositions is electrifying. But while that filmmaking risk pays off, others don't. Of one thing, I'm sure: at times powerful, There Will Be Blood is an utterly unpleasant movie. Whether or not that does it for you, well -- that's a matter of taste.

Grade: B

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Anonymous said...

I've yet to watch Ratatouille, but I've heard nothing but great things about it. I saw all the best picture nominees this year except Atonement, which I couldn't be less interested in watching. It looks like this year's English Patient. I really think Once should have had Atonement's place on the list...

As dark as they were, I would have put all of the other nominees head and shoulders above Juno. Don't get me wrong, it was enjoyable, I liked it and all...but I do think it has to be just about the most overhyped movie in years. And I saw it about a week after it came out. Everyone raved about how well it was written, but I found myself cringing after a lot of the lines...

"That ain't no Etch A Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, Homeskillet".

Absolutely horrific.

Ellen Page was without a doubt the saving grace of the movie, in my opinion. I think based on the fact that movie would probably have been pretty bad without her, she deserved best actress.

Cute movie though.

John G. Potter said...

Yep, I saw everything except Atonement, too (zero interest). Haven't seen Once yet, but I've been looking forward to it.

And I definitely agree that a lot of Juno was forced, and that Ellen Page was behind much of its success. I didn't think it was the best movie of the year, but it did resonate with me more than the other nominees...