Category: Film

More pencils, more books

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008 | All Things, Books, Film, Music

My visit uptown coincided with the first day of Spring semester classes at Columbia. Remember how exciting that used to be?

Columbia University

I was last on campus in late October for the talk with New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Since then, his cultural history of music since 1900, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has landed on several “Best of 2007” lists including those of The New York Times, New York magazine and Slate. Earlier this month, the book was selected as a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Gothamist posted an interview with Ross today, in which he names Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood‘s score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood as his current soundtrack to the city. Disappointingly, the 33-minute piece (which has received raves all around) was disqualified from Oscar contention as it recycled parts of Greenwood’s 2005 BBC-commissioned suite “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.”

Ah, we still love you, Jonny.

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“I saw it. It’s alive. It’s huge.”

Monday, January 21st, 2008 | All Things, Film

Yes, I bought into the hype. Last summer’s viral marketing campaign surrounding fanboyfavorite J.J. Abrams‘s new project, the nameless trailer, the cryptic film website (Cloverfield‘s release date), the flurry of possibly affiliated websites… it all proved irresistible to my inner — and outer — geek.

The conceit: a videotape retrieved from the area “formerly known as Central Park” after an apocalyptic incident code-named “Cloverfield.” Described as Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project (sprinkled with 9/11 anxieties), the entire film is shot with a handheld camera, so those sensitive to motion sickness should consider themselves forewarned. (With a running time of 84 minutes, the shaky camera work is intense, yet mercifully brief.) The movie begins at a downtown loft party, populated by a certain type of insufferable New Yorker, on a night when Manhattan comes under attack by an enormous, briefly-glimpsed monster. What is the morbid fascination movie-goers have with watching New York City get destroyed?

Cloverfield has a lo-fi look, but impressive special effects, which allegedly cost a little over $30 million. To put it in perspective, that’s just $10 million more than Will Smith’s salary for I Am Legend, the other NYC-based apocalyptic film in theaters now.

Here, the single camera POV works well in conveying the chaos and mass confusion. The disorientation and visceral panic of being down in the streets in the midst of the destruction kept the tension high throughout. As typical for this type of film, my emotional investment in the characters was minimal — let’s face it, they’re not a particularly sympathetic group — but the alternating glimpses of original tape footage, showing one of the telegenic couples during recent, happier times does work effectively in jarring juxtaposition. (It is in those sweetly intimate snippets that we see hints of director Matt Reeves‘s previous work with Abrams on the WB’s “Felicity.”)

Columbus Circle

The Times‘s Manohla Dargis appreciated Cloverfield quite a bit less (“Rarely have I rooted for a monster with such enthusiasm“), but other critics responded more positively. More importantly, from the studio’s perspective, so did audiences, who flocked to theaters opening weekend to the tune of $41+ million in ticket sales, surpassing the January record of $35.9 million set by the Star Wars special edition re-release in 1997.

By the way: a gigantic reptilian beast laying waste to Manhattan, dropping vicious crab/spider creatures along the way — sure… could happen. Cell phones working during the siege — hmm, seems unlikely, but… well, okay. But reaching Bloomingdale’s from Spring Street on foot via subway tunnel in a few, albeit action-packed, real-time minutes? The audience at our afternoon screening audibly scoffed. C’mon… it’s clear that writer Drew Goddard, director Reeves and producer Abrams all hail from L.A. because as any New Yorker could tell you: that just makes no sense whatsoever.

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Atonement on film

Monday, January 7th, 2008 | All Things, Film

On my way to see Atonement tonight, I was advised by a friend who screened it a few weeks ago to “bring tissues.” Having read the Ian McEwan novel on which the film was based, I thought that good advice. I headed over to the theater — no coat required! — and settled in for a good weep.

Columbus Avenue trees

I was prepared to love this film. Last month, Atonement garnered seven Golden Globe nominations; in addition to the nomination for best dramatic picture (among an unusually crowded field of seven), the Hollywood Foreign Press Association bestowed nods to actors James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and Saoirse (“SEER-sha,” in case you were as flummoxed as I) Ronan, and to Joe Wright for director — none of whom, unfortunately, will get to walk the Globes’ red carpet this year, due to the writers strike.

The film is beautifully made, no question: a sprawling, epic romance set at the dawn of World War II, a tragedy sparked by a false accusation sprung from a young girl’s overactive imagination. I was pleased to see the film keep the book’s structure with its emphasis on words (written, typed, spoken), while also managing to preserve some of McEwan’s lyricism. There are so many wonderfully framed moments; Wright’s technique of replaying scenes from different characters’ perspectives works well, as does his intense focus on seemingly small visual and aural details: the incessant buzzing of a bee in the sweltering heat, the hard-driving hammers of a typewriter (echoed in Dario Marianelli’s urgent score, with solo work by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet), languidly swirling smoke

The star-cross’d lovers (dreamily played by Knightley and McAvoy) actually share rather little dialogue; Wright conveys much in their smoldering looks, and close-ups of hands: brushing secretly against each other under the dinner table, one laid gently over another during a too brief and public reunion in a busy tea room. Audible sighs and murmurs rippled through the audience during Robbie and Cecilia’s impassioned (and highly choreographed) encounter in a darkened library — probably one of the more affecting love scenes in recent memory, despite being shot almost entirely in shadow, and showing little actual skin, save for a bare, slender back.

That back, of course, belongs to Knightley and it’s sheathed in widely envied bias-cut emerald green silk dress. The stunning garment — by Atonement‘s costume designer Jacqueline Durran — recently was voted the best film costume of all time (?!) in a survey by Sky Movies and British InStyle magazine, beating the likes of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch and Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which were second and third respectively.

Technique-wise, Atonement‘s highlight is the masterful and much celebrated five-and-a-half minute tracking shot, following soldier Robbie through Dunkirk, where the British Expeditionary Force are staging their withdrawal. The camera lingers over the chaos, destruction and disorganization, swooping past looted and abandoned buildings, limbless soldiers, murdered horses, a men’s choir, and surreal images of a pommel horse and a twirling ferris wheel. This type of technical feat is always impressive; I was reminded of the last such sequence I saw, in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. According to director Wright, the one-day beach scene shoot employed an elaborate set with 1,000 extras, plus horses and vehicles, and itself made up a good portion of the film’s estimated $30 million production budget.

For all the grand scale, though, I was left feeling a bit like New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who noted somewhat dismissively that the primary impression left by the mass evacuation scene was “Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,” rather than “My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.

For me, that remove carried over to the film as a whole: I found myself often impressed by what was up on screen, and at several points, quite moved, but never fully drawn in to the story. The difference between liking a movie and loving it, I suppose.

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