Sunday, February 24, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Series - Michael Clayton (Spoiler Warning)

If I hadn't been reading Dreaming the Dark, by Starhawk, all week, watching Michael Clayton might have been a very different experience. The movie is all about what Starhawk would refer to as “power-over”. It is the power of force, coercion and hierarchy, and the societal institutions which allow some people to prosper at the expense of others; it is also the sense of estrangement between people that allows them to think such systemic suffering is okay.

The film opens in darkness, with just the voice of hotshot attorney Arthur Eden. In the middle of defending an a chemical company in a class-action lawsuit, he's had what appears to be a breakdown, stripping naked during a deposition, and rambling to the plaintiff about offering himself in atonement. The language he uses to explain himself is spiritual. He has had an epiphany, and can no longer be part of the harm that his client, uNorth, is causing. The thing that really struck me is how almost everyone around Arthur immediately tries to pathologize his experience. Only Michael Clayton, the firm's “fixer” who has been called in, even pretends to take his concerns seriously. Go back on your meds, he tells Arthur; if what you've seen is real, it will still be there. Unfortunately, Michael has problems of his own: his brother has just left him high and dry with a failed business, making it difficult for him to resist his gambling addiction.

A lot of the trappings of this movie are quite familiar—the evil company with the harmful product, the innocent victims, the noble whistle-blower, and the character at the crossroads of decision. It does have an immediacy and intimacy that not all such movies have. The characters' personal and professional lives are not neatly separate, all of their problems bleed together.

It drags for a long section in the middle, in part because Michael is catching up to learn what we already know. The black-ops hijinx that we see—especially the faked suicide—weren't convincing to me, even though such things probably happen. On a technical note, this is probably the visually darkest of all the Oscar nominees. The score reminds me of Ambient music, and gives the film a dreamlike quality.

George Clooney does a good job playing a man under extraordinary stress. It was a bigger treat for me, though, to see Tom Wilkinson. This script allowed him a more nuanced role than that of the one-dimensional Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins. (Yes, folks, it's “Six Degrees to Cillian Murphy”.) Tilda Swinton portrays great hidden uncertainty as uNorth's unethical lead counsel, Karen Crowder. That is probably believable, but somewhat cliché. Perhaps a remorseless and arrogant female villian would have been more original, or at least more satisfying.

One thing that bothered me, as someone with friends in recovery, is that Michael loses a form of sobriety at the end, and it is not given near enough importance. It amused me that uNorth outsourced legal services to his firm, and in the end, it is printing outsourced by Arthur that saves the day. Michael is used to presenting limited options to people in tight situations, and then helping them by unconventional means; but he discovers power-within—the power of personal authenticity and interpersonal connection—in time to do the right thing.

Storywh0re's Oscar Series - No Country for Old Men (Spoiler Warning)

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

- W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"

No Country For Old Men
opens in the Texas desert in the 1970’s. In voiceover, Tommy Lee Jones's character, Sheriff Ed Bell, talks about how times have changed, especially the job of a local sheriff. He mentions the prospect of finding an evil beyond understanding out in the metaphorical and literal wilderness.

We see the arrest of a man dressed in black, who quickly kills the arresting deputy. He then uses a stolen police car to pull over an innocent stranger and cut them down with his weapon of choice—a compressed-air stun gun intended for cattle. We soon learn that this is ruthless hit man Anton Chigurh

It also quickly becomes obvious why Chigurh is in town. Hunter Llewellyn Moss comes across the scene of a drug-related massacre, and finds a satchel containing two million dollars. From there, a bloody cat-and-mouse game ensues that encompasses Moss, his wife, Chigurh, Bell, and bounty hunter Carson Wells.

Movie audiences are very used to seeing Tommy Lee Jones as a lawman; but this is a more nuanced performance than before. Imagine one of his U.S. Marshall characters, twenty years down the road. I enjoyed seeing Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss. I first saw this Scottish actress in the fabulous Intermission, and here she does a mean Texas accent. However, I'd have to say that the stand-out performance goes to Javier Bardem as Chigurh. His presence is off-kilter, unsettling, and yet somehow mesmerizing. Ironically, that awful late-70s haircut is part of it.

There are some interesting gender dynamics in this story. While there is a great tenderness between Llewellyn and his wife, their relationship is very traditional for the time. He makes all of the decisions, but unfortunately, he makes remarkably dumb ones, and it is hard to watch her struggle to keep up. In a way, all of the male characters are working out their (often cliché') notions of what masculinity means. Wonderfully dry, funny dialog helps punctuate this. Bell is surprisingly open with his feelings and has a relationship of equals with his wife; but Moss and Chigurh let their pride take over them. While Carla Jean is a well-drawn character, her fate is cliché. Cormack McCarthy, author of the source novel, missed a ripe opportunity there. It would have shattered expectations had she been a killer instead of killed.

The narrative shifts in the middle, from focusing on Moss to focusing on Bell. This was slightly jarring to me, especially since I had been wishing for more of Bell's story up to that point. The plot is like a small war there in the desert, which is interesting, because the recently-ended Vietnam war looms large. The importance of choice seems to be a theme. Also, each character's struggle, while interconnected, is also highly individual. The ending is startlingly abrupt and deliberately unsatisfying. We see that Chigurh suffers, on an ongoing basis, for his misdeeds; but we're reminded that life rarely gives us sweeping meaning and tidy conclusions. Instead, there is just wistfulness about the passage of time.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Best Picture Series - "There Will Be Blood" (Spoiler warnings)

There Will Be Blood is based on Oil!, by Upton Sinclair, which in turn was based loosely on oil baron Edward Doheny*. It was directed by Paul Paul Thomas Anderson, who also brought us Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

As the movie opens, we see an oil prospector scrabbling in the desert sand, at the turn of the twentieth century. He gets injured and literally crawls into town on his back. He resumes digging, persevering through setbacks. He adopts the orphaned son of one of his workers. He strikes it rich, going from oil prospector to “oil man”.

All in the first eleven minutes, and all without a word of dialog.

Our protagonist is Daniel Plainview, masterfully portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. The real narrative starts ten years after his big strike. An mysterious young man invites him to visit his family's desolate ranch in California, where oil literally lays thick on the ground. Oil on the surface is apparently apparently no guarantee of oil underneath the ground it—only one of many geological facts one learns from this movie. However, when Plainview finds that there are, in fact, reserves there, tapping them and piping that oil to the sea becomes his project for the next twenty years. He ruthlessly overcomes many obstacles, including reluctant landowners, Standard Oil, a long-lost brother, and a tragic injury to the aforementioned (very precocious) son. The principal conflict, however, is with a self-appointed preacher—the twin brother of the young visitor.

A Pagan high priestesses that I know has a list of pop movies which illustrate the Four Elements—Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is definitely another elemental film—Earth and Fire. Oil, usually hidden deep in the Earth, is omnipresent. It is easy to understand, as Plainview talks about how oil will bring the bread and water to the community, how people could get excited about fossil fuels without thinking about the consequences. The Earth is not just valuable, though—it's mysterious and dangerous. The scene with the oil rig fire is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen on the big screen.

It's hard not to side with Plainview, if only because of his tenacity. There is no denying, however, that he's an asshole. His complete misanthropy is explicitly stated, but never explained. About the time that he's sitting alone in a mansion, firing a gun into the dark, you ask yourself--”Haven't I seen this before?” What? You mean a thinly veiled biography of a rich, influential and lonely man? Yes, you have. It was called Citizen Kane

Paul Dano, who plays the preacher, also does a wonderful job. I had been hoping that his rivalry with Plainview would illustrate a tension between commercial and esoteric values, but that never really developed. Instead, their story ends in a brutal and somewhat unexpected way. There is a sense of detachment and meaningless that left me with a cold, dark uneasiness. I found myself wondering: could a bully be incited to murder by the smell of fear, by the idea that they could get away with it? A terrifying question.

If you want to see an “arty”, somewhat heavy, very well-done film, this is a fine choice. If you're looking to laugh or relax, not so much.

* c/o IMDB

Monday, February 18, 2008

No place like London

I hope my readers will allow me a moment's self-indulgence tonight.

You see, it was a year ago tonight--not factoring for any differences in time zones--that I got to see "Love Song", a play by John Kolvenbach, at London's New Ambassador theater.

The case was amazing: Michael McKean, Kristen Johnston, Neve Campbell and Cillian Murphy. Yes, I was there to see Cillian Murphy. I would watch that man in a life insurance commercial, as those of you who know me know, and as those who don't will learn. One of my best friends and I went there on a wild hare, just for this show. For the record, this is not the kind of thing we're usually willing or able to do.

I'm writing, however, not to congratulate myself, but to to say, if you ever have a chance to see this play, with any cast--SEE IT!

The story revolves around a lonely eccentric named Beane, whose life finally takes off when he falls in love with Molly, a feisty stranger who breaks into his apartment. His sister and her husband, who have been taking care of Beane from arm's length for some time, are naturally concerned. But without even meeting them, Molly begins to open their minds, too.

I remember the music. The opening song is “Just What I Needed”, by The Cars, and to hear that song still hurts me in the best possible way. All of the songs chosen, however, give the play a funky, intelligent, contemporary feel. The set—at least the way it was constructed in London—was ingenious, making visual the feeling of the walls closing in. And the script? The script is by turns hilarious and sad and poetic. There were times I was laughing so hard that I couldn't breathe, and moments where I grew teary.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the themes in the play are familiar to neo-Pagans like myself. At the risk of revealing too much, the play deals with the power of the imagination, the nature of reality, and even the concept of thought forms. In the end, all the characters are able to strike a balance between “fantasy” and “real life”. Beane emerges ready to face the world, and his sister and her husband restore wonder and vitality to their lives.

The whole night was magical. We were still jet-lagged, as circumstances forced us to see the play the night we arrived. However, as the curtain rose, I was pulled right into the excitement of theater in a foreign city.

In case you're wondering, I did get my autograph. I didn't get a picture—Murphy is notoriously shy, and somehow, that just seemed like too much. It all happened very quickly, and I still hope that I managed not to make a fool of myself. In some ways, the play seems far more real than the press of the crowd backstage, anyway.

I guess February is just a month for theater. This year, my friends and I took to the stage ourselves, and became our own fandom. I'll never forget London, though.

* * *
(Promotional photo found on

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Best Picture Series - Atonement (spoiler warning)

This being Valentine's weekend, it seemed obvious to resume my Oscar series with the most obvious love story of the bunch--Atonement.

The story begins on a sweltering sumer day at an English country estate, a few years before the advent of WWII. An attraction is building between Cecilia Tallis, the young daughter of the family that lives there, and Robbie Turner, the housekeeper's educated son. Cecilia's younger sister Briony, a budding writer of 13, has a crush of her own on Robbie.

If you have seen the trailer, you know that Briony walks in on an intimate encounter between Robbie and Cecilia, then accuses Robbie of something he didn't do, causing him to be sent to prison and then to war. However, I was surprised that Briony's accusation actually has nothing to do with Cecilia.

The first few scenes of the movie feel disjointed, and the dialog sounds unnatural. As the movie progresses, it pulls together and smooths out a bit. Some confusing things are done with the timeline at the beginning. In the last fifteen minutes we learn that the whole story has been told through an internal narrative device. That device skips so far into the future of the characters, without preamble, that it is at once ingenious and excessively jarring.

All three of the actresses playing Briony at different ages are fantastic. Young Briony and her cousin Lola are wonderfully precocious—probably typical for their context. Some of the best acting in the movie is from James McAvoy. He brings a moving portrayal to the already endearing character of Robbie. Keira Knightly's cold and imperious Cecilia is less likable. It is unclear why Robbie loves her, aside from possibly her beauty; in spite of the injustice she suffers, she has few sympathetic characteristics aside from being in love. The best thing I can say about this pairing? I'll never see library bookshelf ladders the same way again.

As far as the technical aspects of the film, I would not be the first writer to mention the brilliant way that the score incorporates the sound of a typewriter. I also noticed that at several points, the music comes together with the movie itself in one sound. There is some very interesting cinematography--shots around corners and through doors and up stairwells. The rural scenes are beautiful, and the clashing textures and patterns in the manor house express a lot about the family. There is also some striking imagery in the war scenes; this is not, however, a war movie at heart, and I'd say its less disturbing than something like Saving Private Ryan.

Honestly, the technical aspects of this movie are probably the reason to see this film, if at all. If you're looking for a romantic movie to share with a date—or with a pint of Ben and Jerry's—you can do better. Briony is right—the true ending to the lover's saga does feel kind of pointless. Unfortunately, the fact that she chooses to tell a different story doesn't help the audience of Atonement as much as it helps her. I left feeling that the war was the bigger injustice, the thing that really kept Cecilia and Robbie apart; and Briony's own fate only goes to show that everything evens out in the end.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A bigger boat

I've always thought that Jaws was a very good movie. It has an almost perfect balance of writing, acting and movie magic. I find it to be surprisingly charater-driven...especially that one, wonderful scene where Brady, Quint and Hooper are in the hull of the boat at night, drinking and singing.

Reast in Peace, Roy Scheider.

TV Therapy

Having moved from East Tennessee to Middle Tennessee means that a few times a year, my throat feels like it has an axe blade in it.

Fortunately, I was able to convalesce from my allergies with some good online TV yesterday.

As much as I hate to admit it, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is growing on me. I still find that the charactes all tend to come from the same emotional place, all the time, but at the same time, something keeps me watching. This last episode certainly seemed to have enough action, and enough twists, to keep me enganged. I think the show is getting better as it goes along. On an amusing note, my recent experience on a movie set has changed the way I view film. I think they have used the same warehouse set--or at least the pieces of it--for two or three locations by now.

Speaking of sets...that brings me to my juciest discovery of the weekend: HBO's In Treatment. The format of the show is brilliant: it goes through each week in the life of a therapist by showing him in session, as the therapist for four days and as the patient on Friday. Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Weist are well-matched....ooh, is that brogue of his a pleasure to hear! I can't help thinking that most therapists' lives are NOT this interesting, but it is just this side of believable. Plus, the format gives the script an intimacy and immediacy that practically jumps off the screen. Five nights a week could be a lot to devote to one show...but the beauty is that the Paul re-caps his week for Gina at the end of it. I will definitely keep watching.

And good news...the writer's strike may almost be over. Here's hoping for an equitable compromise, and an end to the long drought of new Story.