25 December 2006

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Hardly an uplifting flick, but a masterpiece nonetheless.

The film is about the Anglo-Irish War and the rise of the Irish free state. It's caused a bit of controversy, probably because the British don't much like to be reminded of their brutal imperialism, but personally, I think it ought to be required viewing for everyone who decks themselves out in Union Jacks (butcher's aprons, as the movie calls them) or blithely orders Black and Tans in Irish pubs. It's an oft neglected bit of history that people really ought to pay more attention to.

But aside from any personal interest in Irish history, it's a remarkable film about rebellion, war, and independence. The brilliance of the movie is in its carefully wrought plot - rather than being a sweeping historical epic, painted in broad strokes, it's more like a carefully assembled series of vignettes, with thematic links. Though it has an overall frame, following the story of two brothers, it comfortably shifts to other issues and doesn't hammer in the "human side". Rather, the plot twists and circles in on itself, returning to questions of justice, betrayal, independence, revolution and the rule of law, in subtle, but powerful ways.

The film is quite brutal, but not gratuitously so. It depicts violence, and cruelty, in an unflinching manner, but I wouldn't call it gory. It also contains long scenes of dialogue, discussions about the beginning of Irish independence and what free Ireland should look like, but these don't seem drawn out or tiresome. Likewise, the love scenes are touching, and relevant, but not over-the-top. Though I did sob at moments, I never felt that I was being emotionally manipulated in some cheap fashion. There are some gorgeous shots of the Irish landscape, but they're remarkably subdued in comparison to most films set in Ireland, which simply can't resist panning over the glorious green fields of Erin. This may be the film's greatest strength - it's quiet restraint, and subtlety. The director recognizes the power of the subject, and doesn't need to dress it up. The acting and dialogue are superb, the story is delicately woven, and the cinematography is excellent. The film has a messy, chaotic feel to it that's very appropriate for depicting a country in turmoil. Also the sound has a curious muffled quality - though this may be because I watched it here in Poland, where I'm vacationing with family, and where presumably most of the audience is reading subtitles. Muffled or not, it's certainly the case that there are many moments where a lot of people are talking at once, giving the film a crowded, bustled atmosphere.

All in all, a brilliant work. Though admittedly, perhaps, not the most obvious choice for holiday entertainment. The woman at the box office was somewhat appalled that this was the movie we came to see on Christmas Day: "Ma'am, you do realize that this is a WAR movie, right?"
Anyhow, highly recommended.

23 December 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

The conceit of this movie is fantastic - the main character comes to realize that he's a character in a novel when he starts hearing the voice of a narrator in his head. The film follows the travails of aforementioned character, but also pulls back to the author, creating one of those delightfully dizzying blends of fiction and reality but yet it's all happening in a movie meta-things that lit dorks like me go nuts over. The problem, however, is that the makers had the brilliance to come up with the idea, but not enough to really do it justice.

The main problem is that the novel being written, the story of Will Ferrell, is boring. It is possible that this is intentional; that Emma Thompson's character, the author, is just a bad writer, which would be a very clever idea, but then why is there a university professor designing courses around her works? Is that a subtle jab at the study of literature? Is that why the literature professor's comments, while often funny, are totally inane? Why is she a bestseller? Why does Will Ferrell see the ending as brilliant, when it's so banal and cliche that it makes you want to tear your hair out?

If this is intentional, it's brilliant. Because the Will Ferrell story is, to me, textbook bad writing. It's tendentious, trite, inconsistent, and generally irritating. Except for the moments where he becomes aware of the narrator's voice, which are hilarious, clever, and very well done. The movie is interesting and entertaining when it focuses on its characters - the dialogue is generally phenomenal, and the acting is fantastic - but the machinations of the plot are so crude and bumbling that its painful. This would be highly appropriate to a movie that claims that characters in novels are real people - bad plots happen to good people too. Sometimes there are characters that seem somewhat interesting (Queen Latifah) despite the fact that their presence in the work seems mostly unnecessary and you barely even get to know them. Which brings up the interesting issue of how it is possible for a character to be so badly written as to be largely pointless and flat and yet still convincingly human and appealing enough that you wish you'd been able to get to know them?

But I'm not convinced that the movie really is that brilliant. I suspect that it didn't actually intend to blow my mind by making Emma Thompson's character a bad writer. I mean, I think it can't entirely be the character's fault, because there's a major whole in the plot that seems to be outside her purview, namely, her surprise at discovering that her character knows about her, which would seem to be impossible if she's narrating his life. Also, I suspect that if that were the film's intent, it would be made more clear. I also suspect that if the movie were that cerebral, it wouldn't have such big name stars in it.

Also, I couldn't help but be supremely irritated by the fact that the movie attempted to pretend that it was set in New York, when it was obviously filmed in Chicago. Especially given that Dustin Hoffman, the lit professor, explicitly makes a point of asking whether the novel's author
is familiar with the city. Incidentally, I think it would have been a nice touch to explore the way that cities are portrayed in literature, to narrate a literary description with a visual counterpart, thus blending ekphrasis and film in particularly tantalizing ways, but maybe I'm the only one who would really get a kick out of that.

All in all, a highly amusing and interesting film. Too bad it's not better. It had a golden opportunity to be an absolutely dazzling intellectual adventure, but it ended up being a watered down, yet somewhat enjoyable, flick. I suspect that it will end up largely forgotten, despite having a ridiculously star-studded cast.

16 December 2006

Thank You For Smoking

I really expected to like this movie. It was billed as this wildly clever satire, ultimately centering on a man who job it is to utilize the persuasive powers of language to their full potential - a bullshit artist, if you will. That it explored this topic through the tobacco industry made it double plus good. But ultimately, I had the same problem with this movie as I did with Quills, that movie about Marquis de Sade - both are films that stick their toes into risky waters, and refuse to take the plunge. Ultimately, Thank You For Smoking ends up unable to resist its own moralizing impulse, and becomes a bland touchy feely lecture on being a good parent.

First though, the plot? Ridiculous. It's so disastrously bad, it's apalling. The movie is supposed to be about talking, but obviously seems anxious that viewers will get bored, so it attempts to make up for this by having these conversations occur in wildly disparate settings, so the main character is always going somewhere, which makes the movie feel really frenetic and rushed. You feel like you only catch glimpses of him in action, and brief snatches of reflection, short bursts where you actually feel like the movie is focusing on its own topic. And when it does so, it manages to be quite interesting, but then, suddenly, the main character is kidnapped and hospitalized, none of which is all that thrilling, or relevant, but is rather distracting and annoying.

The best segment is probably when he goes to the home of the former Marlboro Man with a briefcase full of money. His job is to give the man the money as a bribe to keep quiet about his cancer. It's the moment where the main character's abilities to manipulate people are truly at their peak. But it's weakened by the completely unnecessary presence of his son in the other room, who serves as the nagging thorn of morality in the movie's side. This is truly its achilles heel - the unfortunate choice to introduce the question of morality by examining the kind of role model the main character is for his son (played by the preposterously solemn, doe-eyed Cameron Bright). I hate it when the naivete of children is used to show how corrupt the adult world is. It just gets on my damn nerves. Because of the father-son dynamic, the film is always teetering on the brink of cheap sentiment. Rather than relishing the sleaziness of the main character, you're at every minute anticipating the moment of conversion - which ultimately is exactly what happens, albeit not in the sickly sweet way one dreads.

The real problem with the movie, I think, is that it tries to be both a satire and an psychological investigation of its main character. So on the one hand, you have a cast of totally flat, intrumental characters - the sleazy senator, the sleazy reporter, the sleazy firearm and alcohol reps (most everyone is sleazy in this movie), the gruff boss, the big boss tobacco captain, the concerned mother, etc - and then you have the main character, who is supposed to have some kind of depth. Aaron Eckhart is a great actor, but here he only seems to have two modes of being; the Cheshire Cat smiles and smooth talking, or the contemplative sighs, staring off into space or at his son. You're probably supposed to wonder whether or not he actually believes his own bullshit, but the movie is so busy trying to manufacture some antic-filled plot that it doesn't manage to actually examine this question.

Finally, I couldn't help but be disappointed with the film's prudishness about its centerpiece - cigarettes. I don't know how anyone could see it as a pro-smoking film - to me, it obviously sent a strong anti-smoking message. It emphasizes that consumers should be informed and free to make their own decisions (and curiously, doesn't really explore the manipulative power of advertising, which is supposed to be the point of the movie?), but it makes it crystal clear that cigarettes are not the right choice. It makes a few not-so-subtle comments about the dangers of smoking and refuses to show even a single scene with a character smoking a cigarette. I respect that the filmmakers didn't want to make a movie promoting cigarettes in any way, but if that was the case, maybe they shouldn't have a movie about a tobacco lobbyist?