Saturday, February 23, 2008

Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 2: Bug

Today's Pick:
Bug (2006)

Bug is an adaptation of Tracy Letts's well-loved play of the same name. It debuted at Cannes in May 2006 and received a release in over 1500 American theaters a year later. Thrown into the fray with Pirates 3, Shrek 3 and Spiderman 3 still in theaters, it managed to pull down an opening weekend of 4 million dollars but plummeted significantly after that. Word of mouth and middling critical reception seems to have sunk the film. Why? Let's find out.

What Turned Them Away?

- The marketing. This is by far the biggest reason for the film's chilly reception. You first have to understand that Bug is a ****ing weird film. Marketers design their campaigns around broad genres: adventure, romance, drama, horror. Bug doesn't fit into any of these conventional categories, so Lions Gate decided to stick it into what seemed to work best: horror. If Americans were more tolerant of the "horrifying dramatic black-comedy paranoid love story" genre, Bug may have found a great deal more success, but alas, it was not meant to be.

- The movie itself. Once the marketing got asses into seats, people were alarmed to discover that they were not watching a horror movie. What they saw was half an hour of talky drama, followed by a few weird things that escalated into a bizarre, twisted fever dream of a movie. Certainly not your average summer fare, and with the 60% revenue dropoff from one weekend to another, highly unappreciated. This film is as far out of the box as you get. Bug sees the box, screams and flies away.

- It WAS a play. Ready for the shocker of the century? Plays tend to thrive on their dialogue. Bug is very, very dialogue-heavy, which is dangerous for any film to pull off. You have to give yourself completely to the actors and suspend all disbelief, and it gets especially difficult in this movie. To be fair, I do think it is one of the movie's faults - it really would have benefited from a more radical adaptation from the play.

What Should Have Kept Them?

+ It's unique. As I mentioned before, this went up against a handful of blockbuster threequels and got absolutely destroyed. It's a pretty telling statement for the rewards that originality receives in American media when three derivative formula movies gross a small nation's worth of profit and Bug can't even pull down five million. If I had to invent a genre in as few words as possible for Bug, it would be "absurdist psychological horror". You simply can't do it justice with anything less. It develops two compelling, tormented characters and sends them straight to Hell. Like recent darling There Will Be Blood, there are plenty of humorous moments interlaced with absolutely horrifying ones; it's as if the movie is challenging you to laugh at its insanity. Ashley Judd screaming "I am the super mother bug!!!" in the middle of a heated monologue about governmental conspiracy is about as bizarre as you can get, and surely is an unforgettable moment in the midst of a bunch of forgettable movies.

+ It's powerful. Bug is only a "horror" movie in that some truly unspeakable things happen to the characters we see. The movie allots time to let these people build: Agnes White, bereaved mother and on the run from her terrifying ex-husband, and off-kilter war veteran Peter Evans. Agnes is going through a difficult time emotionally, after the disappearance of her son and her husband's release from prison, and she finds emotional solace in Peter's presence. Sadly, Peter's not all there, convinced that the government is planting "bugs" in him; before you know it, he's got her on a psychological rollercoaster. Agnes is clearly a good, if troubled, person and the things she sees in her exposed state sting us by proxy. One scene, for instance, involves the removal of a bug's "egg sac" and is absolutely terrifying. It is filmed in cold, lengthy shots, not giving the viewer a chance to rest as we watch the painful process. There are never any "safe points" in the movie, riding a steadily mounting wave of fear to the several scary climaxes.

+ Ashley Judd. Who the hell knew she could act? And act she does in Bug; in fact, she acts incredibly well. It is certainly one of the strongest performances of the 2007 movie year, one that she was never going to be honored for but may have deserved it in some alternate world. Agnes White is the crux of the movie; it gives you a half hour to buy into her plight and understand why she so willingly buys into Peter's lunatic ravings. She represents the last bastion of rationale in the twisted chain of events that unfolds, and Judd plays her part with a tempered, wary sort of delusion. She gives off the impression that though she is externally agreeing to whatever she's told, there's some part left of her that simply can't buy into it all - a superb feat from an actress who hasn't been able to prove herself quite like this before.

Bug is a movie that you have to come into with a very open mind. If you expect typical horror tropes, you're going to be deeply disappointed. Allow the movie to be what it is, and you may find yourself shocked, disturbed and perhaps even entertained in a sick sort of way. As I said before, its play roots cause it to be a little long in the tooth in some spots, but a majority of the dialogue is riveting and clever. Bug is truly one of 2007's most underrated pictures.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 1: Marie Antoinette

Welcome to the first post in what will (hopefully) be a series of underrated, underseen, underloved movies. I don't expect to change everyone's mind about the films I want to cover, but hopefully I can offer a new perspective on some of them. These are the kinds of movies that got unfairly dismissed for whatever reason and deserve another shot.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Marie Antoinette is the third film by daughter-director Sofia Coppola, and it is also her most ill-received. It started out inauspiciously when a few people at Cannes perceived it as "historically inaccurate" and booed it, which degenerated into sensationalized stories of crowd-wide hatred. The movie kind of snowballed from there until it finally hit the States, where it opened to a flimsy domestic box-office and mixed critical reception.

What Turned Them Away?

- The plot, or lack thereof. Marie Antoinette, as its title kind of obviously suggests, is a historical character study. (More on that later.) The film is very different in its narrative construction - Marie has no real character arc to speak of. The story is a collection of fragments from her personal life, touching on the highlights like her famed bitch fight with a royal prostitute and her sordid love affairs. It isn't really a movie in that way - it's like a chaptered retrospective of a tragic, naive figure. People claim it's style over substance, but it couldn't be farther from the truth. There is plenty of substance, but it's subtle, and the style masterfully expounds on that substance anyway.

- You don't get to see her beheaded. I'm sure a lot of people would have loved to see Kirsten Dunst's decapitated head rolling around the gallows of France, but Sofia Coppola's decision to leave it to the viewer had a lot of bloodthirsty viewers pissed off.

- Sofia Coppola herself. A lot of people thought she fucked up the third installment of the Godfather series. I mean, sure, she can't act, but why hold that against her in her behind-the-camera pursuits? The backlash grew especially venomous when Lost in Translation found critical and commercial success - people began to cry nepotism. The ill will was bound to explode at some time...

What Should Have Kept Them?

+ The visuals. Say what you will about her storytelling abilities, but it's undeniable that Sofia Coppola has inherited her father's talent for putting a stunning image on film. Between the lavishly-designed costumes, the flawless cinematography and the meticulous set design - surely aided by the fact that it was filmed in Versailles - Marie Antoinette is the kind of movie that leaves indelible images burned into your brain.

+ The sound. Some might not care for Coppola's jangly indie-rock "nouvelle vague" sensibilities, but there's a lot more to be appreciated on her soundtrack. She skillfully juxtaposes not only modern tunes against the historical backdrops of her film, but also makes sure to include several classical pieces as well. Between this and the distinct visual style, Marie Antoinette is a totally unique movie. If the vocal tunes aren't your thing, the instrumentals she selects are fantastic - haunting, simple tunes that fit the mood perfectly. People might like the movie's OST for The Cure and Bow Wow Wow, but Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Dustin O'Halloran's contributions to her score are the real standouts.

+ The character. As I briefly touched upon above, Marie Antoinette was a character of great complexity. The movie doesn't hit all of the points of her tragic life, but few movies could without being four hours long. What it instead offers is scenes, vignettes that tell us as much about the queen as possible in the two hour run time. She wasn't malicious in the slightest, but simply a sheltered teenager placed in a position of incredible power. What 16-year-old is expected to know how to rule a country? Of course she was bound to make mistakes - she is, after all, a teenager. And when she begins to have emotional problems, such as her unconsummated marriage and the political outcries of her foes, she uses luxury to bury them just as anyone her age would. In fixing the focus on Marie, rather than the political turmoil of the country, Sofia Coppola manages to keep the character sympathetic while highlighting her flaws and mistakes at the same time.

I wouldn't call Marie Antoinette a perfect movie. I think it's slow to get off the ground - the first twenty minutes aren't easy to sit through. But the rest is gravy...beautiful, sumptuous gravy. It's a tale of inherent contrast: the vagaries of a teenage girl tempered by an oppressive, dangerous governmental climate. For my money, that's the kind of contrast that creates substance, and doesn't deserve to be ignored.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Best Picture - Clash of the Titans (and some other guys)

(One of hopefully many Oscar posts. They'll be accompanied with pictures like these: the gold star means I think it'll win and the smiley means it was my favorite!)

2007 has been a pretty splendid year for film. Sure, the first nine months of it were inundated with some of the most heinous horse-shit ever to be shoveled into theaters (with a few precious exceptions like Breach or Zodiac), but this final quarter has proven to be more than generous. It almost seems unfair that with so many fantastic movies, only five could be honored this year.

Whether or not these five are the right selections remains to be determined. I don't get a lot of access to limited releases, being a) poor and b) 45 minutes away from the artier cinemas of Sacramento, but I made it a point to at least see all the Best Picture nominees this year. Having done so, I dwelt briefly on my feelings about them; the first impact they made, how they endured in my psyche and the things that bugged me about them. And while the category may be a little loaded, all the movies in it are pretty damn good.

Let's work our way up the list, starting with the sad old nags doomed for the glue factory and finishing with the thoroughbreds:

5) Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton's one advantage, a scant one at best, is that its screenplay is by far the most literate and accomplished one in the field, adapted or otherwise. Like all of its other nominations, however, it's doomed to lose out simply by dint of bad timing. Though it may have a fighting chance in some of its fields, Best Picture is absolutely a lost cause. To be honest, the nomination really just smells of "let's revive the adult legal drama and honor George Clooney at the same time!", and while I did like the movie a lot, it sticks out pretty sorely in this category (not as badly as Juno, at least).

This movie's presence in the 2007 race strongly recalls The Insider, another dark, like-minded law thriller that scored a handful of nominations but didn't pick up any. This genre simply doesn't resonate emotionally with critics enough to gain any sort of traction; they can appreciate the technical approaches, thus leading to nominations, but come ballot time it fades from memory.

- Does it deserve it?: Sure, in a weaker year. But if they were going to honor a mystery movie, Zodiac - easily a more ambitious, accomplished, polished film - got screwed the pooch. Then again, it would have made this an Oscar race filled with deeply depressing and angry movies, which I think would have unsettled people. Clayton's not exactly sunshine and roses, but at least it's not serial killers.
- What are its chances?: None. It's the fifth wheel on the Oscar wagon. It's good to see that the movie even got the honor, but anyone who thinks it has any sort of chance is kind of fooling themselves.
- What about the other nominations?: Original Screenplay, like I said before, is its best shot, but Juno's racketeering will be difficult to overcome. Tilda Swinton gives an unbelievable performance but it's not baity enough for AMPAS and Cate Blanchett has Supporting Actress on lockdown. Tom Wilkinson will get trounced by big bad Bardem. George Clooney didn't deserve the nod.
- My personal rating: 8/10, 4th favorite

4) Juno

Widely regarded as the tiny indie crowd-pleaser this year, as per Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 and Sideways the year before, Juno got an assload of valuable critical support right out of the gate. In addition, the campaigning effort has been tireless; Fox Searchlight really gets behind their movies in times like this. And finally, it's just a damn good comedy. Endearing, tight and wickedly clever, there's not much the movie can't do. On the surface, it seems like the kind of film that no one can bring themselves to hate.

...Or so you'd think. For whatever reason, Juno's harmless quirk has managed to garner some of the ugliest, most hysterical backlash I've ever seen directed at a movie. People fancy themselves that much smarter than the movie simply because they can point out the fact that it's directed with a stilt to a certain audience and the characters talk with an above-average cleverness. OH WELL HOLY SHIT BURN IT AT THE STAKE. No one complained when Fight Club, THE movie for stroking intelligent yet insecure male egos, came out.

In the parts I venture (aka the Internet), males from 15 to 22 are the most vocal demographic and their disdain for the film is overwhelming simply because it trafficks mainly with women. They were cool with Knocked Up because Katherine Heigl was tertiary to Seth Rogen's dumbassery and the tired, unrewarding Paul Rudd-Leslie Mann subplot. Not to say I didn't like Knocked Up, but I think Juno exposes some of the flaws in it, most notably because it's a half hour shorter and still has more emotional pull. It is sad that a movie as innocent as Juno gets crucified with the intensity that it does - any Oscar gold that might fall its way will be decried. But Best Picture is out of its reach.

- Does it deserve it: It really depends on how you posture this. As the comedy selection of the race, definitely. Hot Fuzz was the funniest movie of the year pound for pound, but it didn't really have the emotional hook that Oscar needs in its comedies. Knocked Up was too long and too difficult to take seriously, and Superbad was inconsistent (though generally pretty damn good). But amongst the other four nominees, it's like the emperor has no clothes.
- What are its chances?: Almost none. The critics could all simultaneously experience mid-life crises and vote for it in a shameless bid to seem cool, but it's AMPAS - they're probably all twenty years past a mid-life crisis anyway.
- What about the other nominations?: Ellen Page is the only potential threat to the Cotillard-Christie brawl, and even then she's still a hell of a long shot. Screenplay probably has this in the bag; Diablo Cody's personal circumstances are too irresistible to pass up. The script is overwritten, but also shows hallmarks of profound talent, so the Academy will probably throw it to her as encouragement. Jason Reitman has no chance for Director and I have to say that his nomination was kind of a travesty.
- My personal rating: 8/10, 5th favorite

3) Atonement

Atonement was the initial golden child of the 2007 race, before most people had even seen it. It was a winning pedigree - an adaptation of a widely-loved Ian McEwan book, directed by uprising period piece auteur Joe Wright, and starring the dazzling combination of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. People were predicting Oscar-wide sweeps of every category, three nominations in Supporting Actress, shit like that. The film's popularity crested right before the Golden Globes, but that didn't stop it from taking home Best Drama. A lot of people were surprised to see that it still had the power to pull down any Oscar nominations, let alone seven of them.

To be fair to the movie, it is very good, but not a powerhouse. I liked it just a little more than Michael Clayton just in terms of scale - the best way for me to phrase it was that Atonement engaged me a little more. Michael Clayton was fun and involving but detached, and a lot of people thought Atonement was more frigid than a "romance" movie had the right to be, anyway. I think the movie works on a deeper level than basic romance, in light of the turbulent ending and a plot wracked with despair, which is one of the things I most admire about it.

If Atonement does have any chance at all, it's that it contains the largest aggregate of star power, in the forms of Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave and James McAvoy. George Clooney can sell a movie, but Knightley has more crossover appeal (even though she is fatally dull in her work as Cecilia); Redgrave corners the older market; McAvoy covers the drooly fangirls.

- Does it deserve it?: No. There were stronger entries in the "general drama" category this year. Once would have been a fun substitute, but it is far too small for the Academy to even consider honoring. I never saw Into the Wild, and to be honest I didn't much want to, but a lot of people consider it a snub and I wonder how things would have stacked up with it in the race.
- What are its chances?: Slim, but not discountable. Best Picture at the Golden Globes sure didn't hurt it. The Academy pussying out and failing to honor either of the Big Two, on account of being very dark movies, is a distinctly real possibility. Heads will roll if Atonement picks up Picture, more so than Michael Clayton and maybe even Juno. It'd mean that the Academy was willing to honor a drama, but one as proportionately weak as Atonement. It might be worth it just for the spectacle of intellectuals shitting both themselves and all over the Oscars.
- What about its other nominations?: Adapted screenplay is cornered pretty intensely by the Big Two, though it has an outside chance if they want to honor it SOMEHOW. Everyone loves Saoirse Ronan, which I think is because her name is so cool, but she's not going to get the Oscar. Music (with pesky There Will Be Blood out of the way), costumes (the green dress!) and art direction (tracking shot) are probably locks.
My personal rating: 8/10, 3rd favorite

2) There Will Be Blood

For my money, There Will Be Blood is the strongest movie of the year, a truly sensational parable about greed and hatred. I was absolutely hypnotized by the movie, a sentiment that 90% of critics share - it is more divisive than No Country for Old Men, which is ultimately its downfall, but what love it gets from the big men is that much more fierce for it. I really like No Country, but I think it's going to be relegated to a status like that of Fargo: a widely-loved movie that exists in everyone's peripherals, versus a film that is regarded as a true classic.

But the classics don't always get Oscars, and like I said, this movie is just a smidgen more alienating than No Country was. Paul Thomas Anderson got no awards for Magnolia and Boogie Nights in arguably weaker years than this, so what's saying that he's automatically entitled to a few now? Besides his awesome movie, of course. This also picked up more nods than those two combined, so maybe this is his year. Time will tell.

- Does it deserve it?: Absolutely. It's the movie event of the year. I would have been upset if it hadn't been nominated.
- What are its chances?: Strong, but right now it's trying to claw its way to an echelon that No Country for Old Men has securely established for itself. In the long run, it's harder for me to envision AMPAS honoring this before the Coen Brothers, so I'm going with my gut feeling here.
- What about its other nominations?: Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock for Best Actor. Cinematography is likely as well, threatened once again by No Country. Screenplay has a fair shot, moreso than No Country. They might honor Paul Thomas Anderson with Director if he doesn't win Picture, but I think that's the Coen Brothers' game to lose as well.
My personal rating: 10/10, favorite movie of 2007

1) No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is the movie to beat thus far. Loved by nearly every critic and many intelligent film-goers, despite an ending that left several scratching their heads, it is the Coen Brothers's much-lauded return to form. There's very little to properly fault here and the movie's only real weakness is its darkness. The Academy has historically been hesitant to honor movies such as this one, and even if they don't it's unlikely that it'll trickle past There Will Be Blood down to Atonement. More on this later.

- Does it deserve it?: Yes. Even if this was an appeasement nod for the Coen Brothers's dawdling filmography, it's still definitely the right film to give it to.
- What are its chances?: As I've said, it's the most likely of the bunch to pick up the award.
- What about its other nominations?: The sound Oscars are inevitable; this movie uses sound effects and ambience noise to flawless effect. Cinematography is very likely as well, and even if Roger Deakins doesn't get it for this, he probably will for Jesse James. Directing is very likely - again, this is flagbearer Coen material and the Academy will certainly welcome them back somehow. Screenplay is highly likely as well. Finally, Javier Bardem is a distinct threat to win Best Supporting Actor for his truly chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh.
My personal rating: 9/10, 2nd favorite