Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chad Betz Top 10 Films of 2007

1. No Country for Old Men
2. There Will Be Blood
3. Zodiac
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
5. Once
6. Ratatouille
7. Margot at the Wedding
8. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
9. Death Proof
10. Eastern Promises

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chad Betz reviews The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Julian Schnabel and Spielberg's current go-to DP Janusz Kaminski here devise a visceral cinematographic schema to take us within the mind of an almost totally paralyzed man who can only see out of one eye, which he uses to blink out his thoughts to those who loom into his line of sight like spectres from a life past and lost. We are brought into his means of communicating because we see the closing and opening darkness, once for "yes" and twice for "no." A voice-over provides us with his thoughts, which only he and us can hear. It's ingenious and difficult to take because we sit there in the theater and we look straight ahead at the screen and we taste a hint of what Monsieur Bauby experienced, because cinema only touches the same two senses that Bauby's cerebrovascular accident left him, seeing and hearing. A commercialized, forcefully sentimental, unimaginative approach was the only thing that could've brought down a film this simple and coursing with inherent pathos; thankfully the film's methods are equal parts French New Wave and Felliniesque, the sentiment is pure and undecorated, and the imagination is wild. This is fractured vision and sound with flights of memory and fantasy bursting from the ragged cracks, and Schnabel's and Kaminski's rendering of that state becomes rapturously poetic.

Of course, few audiences would be able to take a whole film trapped within that perspective, and as the film goes along it more and more frequently goes to the third person (perhaps representative of Bauby's growing out of his crushed self-absorption and becoming more thoughtful of the people in his life). There's also a fairly pop soundtrack, perhaps intended to tap into a playlist of favorite songs like Bauby might have done in his mind when there was no one to play the music for him. And it's understandable, because nobly enough, the last intention of this film is to depress. Bauby's suffering is ugly, but the things he sees are terrifyingly beautiful, and though the film certainly doesn't treat him as any sort of saint, his soul becomes beautiful to us as it reflects to us the beauty he perceives (through the book that he writes in the film and on which the film is based), too intense for him to absorb it all himself -- like the moon reflecting the light of the sun. This is not so much a "triumph of the human spirit" film as it's a "triumph of beauty over the broken human spirit" film. It won't make you feel good, necessarily, but it will make you glad for the life you have within you and will affect you by recognizing that same spark in those trapped by crumpled shells, by diving bells.

Chad Betz reviews Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Would anyone like this film outside of the slant "it's Lumet's big comeback"? Yes, the film has a certain sloppy energy to its direction and the acting of Hoffman, Hawke, and Tomei's breasts. But the nonlinear approach to a thriller looks plain amateurish and unwieldy compared to the way it's been handled in the past by Nolan and Tarantino; hell, Guy Ritchie did it better. And the cineastes want to talk about unlikable characters in Margot at the Wedding? There's not a single tolerable character in this fucking movie (the only other time I've ever said that about a film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman was Capote). Usually that's not a big deal for me, but why am I supposed to care where this convoluted mess of a plot is taking these miserable characters, who do only two things: (1) screw/screw over each other (2) wallow. I even hated the little girl. SPOILER (if you can really spoil such sod as this): there's a point late in the film where Hoffman threatens to shoot Hawke and Hawke asks him to go ahead and do it. To which I wanted to say, "Yes, and save a bullet for me, too."

Seriously, where are these accolades coming from? Was anyone tricked into thinking it had tight plotting? Tight like a piece of ceram wrap wrapped around a big smelly fish. The character motivations never rise above questionable. The story's more dismal than No Country For Old Men's while lacking any of the poetry; the hammy stabs at profundity (Hoffman confessing his very obvious worthlessness to his dealer, Hoffman ransacking his own house, Hoffman crying about becoming his dad) seem pointless and mostly just a pain to watch. The film's conclusion quickly escalates into ridiculousness. And the editing together of all of it is haphazard and horrendous, the flashing freeze frame gimmick used to switch between timelines one of the worst crimes in the field since The Boondock Saints raped my eyeballs. Don't just avoid this movie, ostracize it.

Chad Betz reviews Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding

Coming off the painfully funny and unflinchingly incisive family divorce and dissection of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding feels like it must also be stealing a hefty sum of pages from writer-director Noah Baumbach's own life, so unbearably realized are all of its characters and their interactions. Critics have lambasted this film for being a character-based drama without a single likable character; this is a definite case of misjudgment, as all these characters strike me as being a bit like William H. Macy's character from Magnolia, all still in search of a healthy and mature way to express the love that's causing them to behave in destructive patterns, unwittingly ruining their own loves and soiling their best intentions because they can't escape perspectives that are self-oriented. Of course, Nicole Kidman's character study is the centerpiece here, and if Daniel Day-Lewis was this year's embodiment of Ahabism, Kidman's work is more everyday if no less insidious, intense, and saddening. In the end the film is far more kind to her, though, implying that despite all her actions their is something redemptive in the movement of her heart, it's just a movement constantly distorted by her hubris.

The story drifts a bit between its events and would have benefited from the more pronounced building of tensions that Baumbach used to push The Squid and the Whale forward; also, the humor is still funny but less convincing than The Squid and the Whale's utterly natural incorporation of levity through the clash of character foibles. Watching Jack Black run for half a minute in fear of an incensed father made me chuckle, but it seems more of an insert than a result. If there's an improvement, it consists in Baumbach taking more cues from the early work of Eric Rohmer, crafting a talky film that doesn't really feel talky because the talk is not plot, it's character splayed out through the rhythms of conversation -- these long passages punctuated with almost-silent visual moments (Margot in the tree, the pool, the pig slaughtering, Margot running after the bus) that are thus imbued with force like that of a punch to the gut. Harris Savides made digital look like film earlier this year with Zodiac; here he channels the spirit of DP Nestor Almendros into a decidedly modern, loose approach that's the perfect fit for Baumbach's elaboration of connected short stories into one feature length. Not quite a great film perhaps, but like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it's at least a fine collection of great scenes that give some context to each other.

Chad Betz reviews No Country for Old Men

No Country For Old Men

In which the Coen Brothers erase the memory of their past few colossal flops and apply their strengths (dark humor, blunt editing, remarkable plotting focus) and the strengths of their cinematographer Roger Deakins (stark lighting, precise composition) to the most poignant thematic material they've yet handled, the apocalypse now jeremiad of Cormac McCarthy's wonderful little book. But the Coens don't just show a formally near-perfect handle on McCarthy's cinema-ready prose...for the first time I feel like they've fully grasped the emotional potentialities of the story they're telling, and their relatively straightforward adaptation of the book makes only the deftest tweaks to enhance the shuddering impact of their film.

From the introduction of the idea of the "dismal tide," the inevitable erosion of ourselves and the world in which we live, to the way the sheriff's monologues are integrated, sculpted, and emphasized, the Coens don't just "get it"; they're as moved by these things as we are, and their detailed work here conveys it, dare I say, heartbreakingly. One of the smartest changes is the removal of an episode between the sheriff and Llewellyn's father late in the book; this ensures that the film remains a landscape of boys, desperate men, and Chigurh's violent nihilism incarnate (tapping into the most hopeless form of male machismo) all fatherless, left to drag down their wives and mothers into the same pit. Just as it's a story without fathers (when Llewellyn tells Carla Jean to say goodbye for him to his dead mother, it's like his father never even existed), it's a world without a Father. This is a damned bleak scene to paint. The faint, almost completely stifled hope of the film lies in the sheriff's stories about his predecessors, about his father who died young, in the sheriff's dream of his father that closes the book and the film with one last quiet but resonant note of grace. Maybe it is just a dream, the light which we cling to, but it's absolutely necessary in a reality that spews up darkness to tear away at every earthly love and possession.