Monday, January 28, 2008

No Country For Old Men VS. Michael Clayton

My wife Irena and I saw two, count 'em TWO Oscar contenders over the weekend.
NCFOM is the one sucking up all the oxygen so far this awards season. Having read the book, I found No Country a lot more watchable than I expected, given its extremely bleak story. Still, I can't help thinking "what's the point?" It's a beautifully crafted piece of nihilism. The cinematography and acting are excellent, even if the casting of Tommy Lee Jones is a bit too on-the-nose. Roger Ebert praised the score, which is odd since the film has no music at all. This is bold, audacious filmmaking, but it left me a bit cold. The film is brutal, intense, riveting, and, for my money, ultimately pointless.
Michael Clayton is a conventional Hollywood political-type thriller, but I found it more satisfying. The film begins with the title character getting out of his car to admire some horses. As he stands on the hillside, his car blows up behind him. Then the film flashes back to four days earlier. This is a clever screenwriting ploy. Since we know what's coming with the near miss, when the story catches up to that point we accept what would otherwise be a credibility-killing coincidence. The themes of Michael Clayton are simple-bad corporate citizens versus our flawed hero. Still, I believe it's better to be good than original, and Michael Clayton is very, very good. Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney are all reminders that some people are movie stars for good reason.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Field of Screams

Today I braved the frigid Toronto weather and went downtown to see Cloverfield. The film is told entirely from the point of view of a single video camera, and begins at a going-away party for hip young Rob on the eve of his departure for a big job in Japan. As his pal Hud documents the party we get a voyeur's look into Rob's conflict between taking the job and staying to try to win back his girlfriend Beth.
A lot of reviews say these characters aren't interesting, and I would tend to agree. The most clever aspect of the storytelling involves the fact that the mayhem is being filmed over a used tape. This allows "gaps" in the filming, where we get to see snippets of what was on the tape before, filling in the backtory of Rob and Beth. Trouble is, there's no backstory to see, wasting an ingenious narrative device.
With nothing invested in these characters, there is very little tension or emotion to be found once the city starts crumbling. Rather than a story it plays more as a demonstration of clever storytelling techniques, and on that level it succeeds. I've read other reviews slagging the monster, but for me he worked well enough. At under 90 minutes, it's a brisk, enjoyable ride, but it could have been so much more.

After the film, my friend took off immediately to make a train, leaving no time for discussion. This is somewhat fitting. We neither laughed, nor cried, but we did kill 90 minutes. Nothing more to discuss.